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September 2, 2023

The Five Precepts

On the opening night of most retreats in our tradition, the teachers and retreatants join together in the ancient ritual of going for refuge and taking the precepts. Going for refuge reminds us of the power of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha, known as the Triple Gem, to guide us on the path and protect our hearts in a difficult world. Taking the precepts also offers guidance and protection—by focusing on how we create safety for ourselves and others. Where the refuges are sources of inspiration and confidence, the precepts are actions: things we do, and importantly, don’t do. The precepts embody the ethical limbs of the Eightfold Path, and are always taught first, as necessary foundations for the cultivation of meditation, insight, and liberation. Committing to them together helps create a strong container of safety on retreat, but also prepares us individually for the purification that happens as we come into intimacy with our life. 

Although the Eightfold Path begins with Right (or Wise) View and Intention, followed by the ethical limbs of Wise Speech, Action, and Livelihood, when the path is spoken of in brief, it is always listed with ethics first: sīla, samādhi, pañña, or ethics, meditation, and wisdom. Ethics is the foundation of the path because without conscious attention to the impact of our actions, old habits of greed, hatred/fear, and delusion impel us to react to difficulty in unskillful ways, causing harm to ourselves and others. When harm is caused, the mind can get caught in cycles of regret, defensiveness, shame, and self-judgment, all of which are types of clinging. Through forgiveness, accountability, and honest reckoning, we can come to peace with our past, but it takes the ongoing cultivation of ethics to create the conditions for a future free from suffering. 

Wise action in the present prepares the ground for a future in which the heart can rest in the “bliss of blamelessness” (AN 4.62), knowing that we did our best, and that we have attended sincerely to any impacts of our actions. Deepening in meditation depends on relaxation, non-distraction, and the pleasure of letting go. When the heart is free from regret, guilt, and anxiety about our actions, concentration can more easily grow. The Buddha thus praised ethics not just for how it protects others, but as an important support for states of calm, joy, and deepening in mindfulness (SN 47.21). This remains true for the entire path: being solidly rooted in the precepts is one of the things that defines the first stage of liberation, or “stream-entry” (AN 5.179).

The framework used for our practice of ethics is known as the “five precepts” (pañca sīla) or “five lay precepts,” which emphasizes the difference between this abbreviated list of guidelines and the more complex body of ethical practices undertaken by monastics. The precepts help us bring mindfulness to how we cause harm to ourselves and others through unskillful action. The precepts are traditionally defined in the negative: refraining from harmful actions, rather than in the positive of doing things that are helpful, though both are important parts of practice. 

Since the overarching ethic is to minimize harm, restraining unskillful impulses can be thought of as the necessary first step. With intention, determination, and mindfulness, we can see when we are about to cause harm, and interrupt the reactivity or habit pattern that may be motivating us in that moment. This is the practice of refraining from an unskillful action. When we are not in such immediate danger, however, developing the positive corollaries of the precepts—helping instead of harming, giving instead of stealing—opens the heart toward compassion, generosity, and service. 

The Five Precepts in Pāli & English

We chant the precepts in the ancient Buddhist language of Pāli as well as in any number of English translations. The translation given first here is the one used by the Thai Forest Saṅgha of Ajahn Chah, one of our root lineages. Other common translations of the precepts are listed below. 

The five precepts as we take them at the opening of a silent retreat are: 

1. Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi 
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking the life of any living creature.

2. Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi 
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given. 

3. Abrahmacariyā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi * 
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual activity. 

4. Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi 
I undertake the precept to refrain from lying. 

5. Surāmeraya-majja-pamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi 
I undertake the precept to refrain from consuming intoxicating drink and drugs which lead to carelessness. 

* There are two versions of the third precept, on sexuality. When on retreat, we take the above version of the precept, which prohibits all voluntary sexual activity. This renunciation supports the space of the retreat to be as free as possible from the charge that comes with sexual energy being expressed. When laypeople are not on retreat and in the flow of ordinary life, we are encouraged to practice a more open form of the third precept in which we refrain not from sexual activity but from unskillful or harmful expressions of it. That version of the precept, which you might chant or reflect on at home, is: 

Kāmesu micchācārā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct. 

Though the precepts are expressed as restraints, they are not commandments, and there is no external god or authority figure in Buddhism that judges people and their actions. The precepts are disciplines for us to practice purely in service of our own well-being and the safety of those around us. They are broad and not exhaustive—they don’t go deeply into exactly what we should do and not do—because they are seeds for inquiry and investigation, not something to accomplish and be done with. A beautiful result of inquiry into the precepts is the feeling of integrity, which then supports deep ease and peace of mind in meditation, and letting go of clinging. 

The Eight Precepts

On our longer retreats, sometimes an additional discipline known as the “eight precepts” is offered, where three renunciation practices are added to the basic five precepts. The three additional precepts are not ethical in the same way the first five are, and nobody is harmed if we don’t do them. Instead, they are simple ascetic disciplines in which we let go of familiar comforts and distractions and live more like monastics for a short period. Traditionally, keeping eight precepts is a practice done once a week on Uposatha (observance) Days, which occur on the new, full, and half moons each lunar month. On retreat at Spirit Rock, taking the eight precepts is always optional, and you can always decide to set them aside and return to practicing just the primary five. 

The three additional precepts are:

6. Vikālabhojanā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi
I undertake the precept to refrain from eating at inappropriate times. 

7. Nacca-gīta-vādita-visūkadassanā mālā-gandha-vilepana-dhāraṇa-maṇḍana vibhūsanaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi
I undertake the precept to refrain from entertainment, beautification, and adornment. 

8. Uccāsayana-mahāsayanā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi
I undertake the precept to refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place. 

The most impactful of these for many practitioners is the sixth, refraining from eating “at inappropriate times,” which traditionally means after the noon meal, or around 1pm. Tea and medicine is allowed in the afternoon and evening, and food can be taken again beginning at dawn the next day. This form of what is now called “intermittent fasting” was highly praised by the Buddha, and is required for monastics. (And as to #8, at Spirit Rock we don’t consider our beds to be “high and luxurious,” so we don’t expect anyone to sleep on the floor of their room.)

Discourses describing the practice of eight precepts on Uposatha days include AN 8.41, which defines the eight precepts, and AN 9.18, which adds meditation on lovingkindness. Novice monastics commit to 10 precepts, which are these first eight with entertainment and beautification separated out, and the addition of not using money (Kp 2).

Other Translations of the Five Precepts

Because the precepts address our actions in an intimate and relational way, many translations and interpretations of them have been created expressing different aspects of these powerful practices. Here are a few commonly used by Spirit Rock teachers:

  1. I undertake the training precept of refraining from killing and harming living beings. 
  2. I undertake the training precept of refraining from stealing and taking that which is not mine. 
  3. I undertake the training precept of refraining from causing harm through sexual misconduct. 
  4. I undertake the training precept of refraining from false speech, harmful speech, gossip, and slander. 
  5. I undertake the training precept of refraining from the misuse of intoxicants such as alcohol or drugs that cause carelessness or loss of awareness
    (Jack Kornfield)
  1. Aware of the suffering caused by violence, I undertake the training to refrain from killing or committing violence toward living beings. I will attempt to treat all beings with compassion and lovingkindness.
  2. Aware of the suffering caused by theft, I undertake the training to refrain from stealing, from taking what is not given. I will attempt to practice generosity and will be mindful about how I use the world's resources.
  3. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I undertake the training to refrain from using sex in ways that are harmful to myself or to others. I will attempt to express my sexuality in ways that bring joy and feelings of connection.
  4. Aware of the suffering caused by harmful speech, I undertake the training to refrain from lying, from harsh speech, from slander, and from idle speech. I will attempt to speak and write in ways that are loving, truthful and appropriate.
  5. Aware of the suffering caused by alcohol and drugs, I undertake the training to refrain from misusing intoxicants that dull and confuse the mind. I will attempt to cultivate a clear mind and an open heart.
    (Larry Yang)

Sometimes the phrase, “Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine” is added before each precept, reminding us of our interconnection and interdependence:

  1. Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the precept to protect life.
  2. Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the precept to be generous.
  3. Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the precept to protect the sexuality of myself and others.
  4. Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the precept to care for my speech.
  5. Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the precept to be free of intoxicants for a clear mind and heart.
    (Leslie Booker)

Many Spirit Rock teachers and practitioners have been inspired by the versions of the precepts used in other lineages as well, such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful and expansive version called the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which weaves social and environmental awareness into a positive version of the precepts. 

The Precepts in the Pāli Discourses

While we generally think of the five precepts as the central list of ethical practices taught by the Buddha, there are several other ways these guidelines are listed, including in the Eightfold Path itself, where Wise Speech is given its own limb, Wise Action refers to the first three precepts, and Wise Livelihood is added. The fifth precept, refraining from intoxication, is absent from this and some other lists, while the fourth precept is often expanded. One of the most common versions of the precepts used in the Pāli discourses expands the precept on wise speech into four: refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and nonsense, or “idle chatter.” 

One discourse on the precepts, “The People of Sālā” (MN 41), divides conduct into body, speech, and mind, with bodily misconduct addressed by the first three precepts (refraining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct), spoken misconduct through the four variants above, and mental misconduct added in the form of covetousness, ill will, and wrong view. This approach not only expands the discipline of ethics suggested by the precepts to distinct situations in conversation and relationship, but includes painful emotional states and viewpoints that often lead to harmful reactivity and unskillful choices. 

For monastics, ethical practice is expanded to a complex legal and relational code of conduct known as the Vinaya, which governs many aspects of communal monastic life. Ethics is also taught as a more expansive aspect of the path to liberation, sometimes called “the entire spectrum of ethics” (DN 2, section 4.3.1), a training in renunciation that supports not just communal harmony but also the attainment of meditative absorption (jhāna) and immersion (samādhi). 

Some of the highest praise in the discourses addresses the power and beauty of keeping the precepts, including reminders that ethics is the foundation of the Eightfold Path:

“Mendicants, all the hard work that gets done depends on the earth and is grounded on the earth. In the same way, a mendicant develops and cultivates the noble eightfold path depending on and grounded on ethics. …

“All the plants and seeds that achieve growth, increase, and maturity do so depending on the earth and grounded on the earth. In the same way, a mendicant develops and cultivates the noble eightfold path depending on and grounded on ethics. …

“Mendicants, dragons grow and wax strong supported by the Himalayas, the king of mountains. When they’re strong they dive into the pools. Then they dive into the lakes, the streams, the rivers, and finally the ocean. There they acquire a great and abundant body. In the same way, a mendicant develops and cultivates the noble eightfold path depending on and grounded on ethics, acquiring great and abundant good qualities.”

(“Hard Work” (SN 45.149), “Seeds” (SN 45.150), “Dragons” (SN 45.151))

And in a beautiful poem in the Theragāthā (Verses of the Elder Monks) a monk named Sīlava praises ethics as “the ford where all the Buddhas cross over” (Thag 2.1). 

Chanting or speaking the precepts as part of daily or weekly home practice can be a powerful support for shifting unhealthy habits of body, speech, and mind throughout our life and relationships. Because ethics is fundamentally relational, practicing the precepts draws on lovingkindness and compassion as we practice wise connection, skillful engagement, and healthy boundaries with everyone we encounter. When chanted, the precepts are sometimes followed by a line making clear the connection between ethical practice and full liberation:

Idam me silaṃ magga phala ñānassa paccayo hotu
By the discipline of ethics, may I realize the path and fruit of practice.

May our practice of the precepts support safety and well-being for ourselves and all beings in our lives, and through ethics may we find the liberation and freedom from suffering that is the heart of the path.

Talks & Meditations on the Five Precepts

Our talk selections this month explore ethics and the practice of the five precepts.

Leslie Booker
Sept 21, 2022
Bringing the Precepts into Life
Brian Lesage
May 23, 2017
Refuges and Precepts and Introduction to Chanting Them
Nikki Mirghafori
October 22, 2021
Examining Reality: Preparing Ourselves by Grounding in Ethical Integrity
Matthew Brensilver
Jun 6, 2016
Ethical Implications of Mindfulness
Sylvia Boorstein
December 16, 2015
Ethical Behavior or The Goal of Practice as the Expression of Wisdom
Kate Munding
Mar 1, 2013
Ricky, Ricky, Ricky... What’s Going On?
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