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Reflections on Ethics 103
The Five Precepts of Buddhism

by: James Quirk

In line with the various variations on the 10 Commandments offered in this section, the Five Precepts of Buddhism seem appropriate. Reprinted from James Quirk's blog Philodynamics.

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A Foundation for an Ethical Life

The Five Precepts of Buddhism are the basic ethical guidelines of a Buddhist life. Buddhists believe these simple suggestions can prevent many misfortunes.

The Five Precepts of Buddhism offer simple guidelines for ethical conduct, prescribing the minimum moral foundation for a Buddhist life. Despite their simplicity, each precept contains deeper implications, some of which this article will attempt to interpret and explain.

The Five Precepts

1. Avoid killing.

Although this precept seems simple enough when taken at face value, a deeper examination shows that it is a precept which requires ongoing attention. While it is obvious that egregious acts of killing such as murder are prohibited, the fact remains that all life depends on other life for its survival. To eat, we must kill. This is why many Buddhists attempt to minimize the extent and degree of the killing they are responsible for by adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet.

2. Avoid stealing.

Again, the seeming simplicity of this precept may be deceptive. Obviously, blatant acts of theft such as shoplifting or robbery are prohibited, but depending on an individual's social and political views, participation in society itself may involve less obvious forms of stealing. For example, a social conservative may believe that taxation and wealth redistribution constitute a form of theft. Conversely, a social liberal may see capitalism and private property as having inherently larcenous elements. Thus, following the precept to refrain from stealing may be more challenging than it initially appears.

3. Avoid sexual misconduct.

Of the five precepts, this is perhaps the most straightforward, although there remains considerable room for interpretation. Naturally, acts such as rape and child abuse are strictly prohibited, as any reasonable person would expect. However, sexual misconduct is also somewhat contextual in nature. In a committed relationship, for example, unfaithfulness could be seen as sexual misconduct. Similarly, promiscuity and carelessness may be interpreted as misconduct by some Buddhists.

4. Avoid false speech.

Ostensibly, this precept forbids lying, although it does not clarify the status of the numerous "white lies" most people tell to get through the day. A reasonable approach may be to treat this precept the same way the first precept (admonishing killing) is treated by taking a "harm reduction" approach in terms of dishonesty. Just as no one can get through life without killing in some form, even if it is only plants that are killed for sustenance, it is unlikely that anyone can avoid all lying. Even so, setting a goal to honor this precept by minimizing dishonesty can be a valuable commitment.

At a deeper level, the precept against false speech extends not just to simple lying, but to any type of speech that is harmful, abusive, mean-spirited, gratuitously negative, or otherwise harmful to oneself or others. In resolving to refrain for false speech, one should endeavor to minimize these forms of speech as well. A Buddhist's speech should be uplifting wherever possible, and harmless otherwise.

5. Avoid intoxication and/or intoxicants.

There is some debate within the Buddhist community as to the precise intended meaning of this precept, with some maintaining that it forbids alcohol and other drugs entirely, and others holding that the use of these substances in moderation is acceptable, as long as recklessness does not result.

The original wording of the precept states that "substances which cause heedlessness" are to be avoided, lending some potential support to the view that a state of heedlessness itself is the crux of the issue. In either case, it is clear that drunkenness and/or drug "highs" which cause recklessness are to be avoided. Whether one chooses to do this by avoiding such substances altogether or by partaking in a moderate, responsible manner may be best considered a personal choice.

The Five Precepts in Daily Life

It is important to note that from the perspective of Buddhist culture, the Five Precepts are simply suggestions or guidelines which an individual voluntarily chooses to adhere to for his or her own betterment. They are not commandments from "on high" or rigid demands from authority. Each Buddhist is accountable to himself or herself for keeping his or her own commitment.

By practicing the Five Precepts to the best of their ability, Buddhists may find that the quality of their lives improve. Along with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, The Five Precepts are a foundational cornerstone of authentic Buddhist practice.


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