morality and the five precepts

What do we mean when we say ‘morality’? What role does it play in our lives and our practice?

Morality is essentially a way of defining what is right and what is wrong. Two different people can have two entirely different definitions of right and wrong, two entirely different ways of seeing morality – depending on their culture, their upbringing, their surroundings, their aim in the life, their qualities.

We will not attempt here to give a general explanation of all the different kinds of morality that exist in the world, and why they are there. In this school, this teaching, the basic definition of what is right and what is wrong is this:

If it harms others, or yourself, or both, it is wrong.

If it does not harm others, or yourself, or both, it is right.

This applies to all actions; including physical actions, spoken words, and thoughts. Spoken words are harmful if their intention is to hurt others or oneself; thoughts are harmful if their motivation is hurtful to others or oneself or both.

There is a subtlety here that should be understood before going any further, and that is that words like ‘harming’ and ‘helping’ can have different meanings depending on who you speak to, and what their aim is.

To take a basic example, to someone who is not of a generous nature and whose aim is simply to make as much money as possible, removing some money from his bank account and giving it to a charitable cause looks ‘harmful’ to himself; to hurt his bank account is to hurt himself. But to one who wishes to work on himself and become a better person, it’s the opposite – this one sees that, far from being harmful for himself, generosity brings even more benefits for the one who gives, than it does for the receiver, bringing with it all the effects of a lightened heart, joy and peace of mind.

To someone who is following the teaching of the Buddha, an action that is harmful to myself is any action that will bring negative results for me: that is, any action that will create bad karma. An action that creates bad karma is basically any action that hurts and harms other living beings – thus, an action that is harmful for others is by definition even more harmful for myself; an action that is benefits others is even more beneficial for myself. There is no conflict between the two.

Morality is, for this reason, not something that can be decided upon once and then forgotten about and followed all one’s life. It requires constant work, constant effort, to see in the present what is right to do and what is wrong to do, to know whether your action will be helpful for yourself and others or harmful for yourself and others. To see clearly the difference between a right and a wrong action is the definition of wisdom, and as meditators, one of our main tasks is to work to develop and grow this wisdom in ourselves.

To help us to avoid the most harmful kinds of actions both for others and ourselves, we follow a code of morality called the Five Precepts. This is a basic code that anyone wishing to be a student in the Buddha’s teaching must accept and follow at all times:

1.      Abstain from killing any living being

2.      Abstain from stealing

3.      Abstain from telling lies

4.      Abstain from sexual misconduct

5.      Abstain from intoxication.

These are not a set of commandments that are to be followed simply because they have been laid  down by an authority. Everyone who decides to take these precepts as a guide in their life should do so because they understand and see for themselves the wisdom in them.

  1. No Killing

To abstain from killing any living being means that one refuses to ever intentionally take the life of another being, whether that being is human, animal, bird, fish or insect. All beings want to live, all fear death, all have the instinct to survive, all have a mind that can fear persecution and feel suffering. We should cultivate compassion for all living beings and never harm them of our own will.

This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but we often don’t realise how much killing, particularly of insects, is an accepted and even apparently necessary part of normal life. We must adapt our lifestyle and our livelihood in consideration of this precept: it’s obvious that if you wish to follow this teaching, you cannot work as a butcher or fisherman; and in our agricultural practices, for example, we must adapt our behaviour in view of it –  we will never use any kind of insecticide or any product whose aim is to kill insects, we will wear mosquito nets and catch flies in nets instead of swatting at them.

However, there will still be times when we step on insects that we do not see as we are walking down the street, or when bugs are dying as they fly into our windshield. We cannot avoid all deaths that take place around us, even when they are caused by our activities, but we take care as much as we can reasonably do, and most importantly we will never do an action whose intention is to destroy another living being.

Note that this precept is only concerned with the direct act of killing itself, and does not extend to vegetarianism. If you want a fuller explanation of this distinction, I have written more about it in this article.

2. No Stealing

To abstain from stealing means what it says on the tin: never take anything that belongs to somebody else, that is not given to you or to which you have no right, neither try to cheat others out of what is their right. Stealing is an act driven by the greed of filling one’s own stomach at the expense of making another more hungry, an act of pure selfishness that you do when you do not care about the harm you do to others if you get to benefit yourself. Such an act is not really beneficial to you at all, but will cause you long term harm and suffering. As well as causing worry, heaviness, guilt and regret, constant anxiety lest anyone should discover what you have done; you make yourself into a cheat, a liar, a low person with whom nobody would wish to associate. Who wants a thief for a friend?

3. No Lying

A liar, like a thief, is somebody in whom one can never have trust , and when we lie to others and ourselves it means that we cannot trust ourselves and others cannot trust us. We are hurting ourselves in so many ways by lying, as well as hurting others: making our life more complicated than it needs to be, creating a big block for ourselves if we want to work on improving ourselves, and showing great disrespect, ingratitude and disregard for the people around us.

To abstain from lying is more difficult than it looks at first glance. It’s all very well to say we are committed to never telling a lie, but often we can tell untruths almost automatically, as a reflex response to a given situation. We may tell lies for several reasons: for example, to get something we want, to hide something we have done wrong, to protect ourselves from anger, to make other people like us, to make ourselves appear to be better than we are, to gain people’s trust.

 Deciding to tell no more lies often means exposing ourselves to more censure, laying bare our wrong actions and our mistakes, committing ourselves to being truthful in our words and our actions. If we say we do something, we do it. If we say we do not do something, we do not do it.

(Warning! This should not be taken to mean that we allow ourselves to be taken advantage of by anyone who wants information from us, that we cannot hide information   from somebody who has no need and no right to that information – if someone asks us detailed questions regarding our bank account which are clearly none of their business, we don’t have to tell them the answer. We will never tell a direct untruth as a response, however – instead, we can either refuse to answer, or give an answer that avoids the question, as the occasion demands.

We should always be aware of why we are choosing to hide something or withhold information, checking inside ourselves to make sure that our reasons are good, and not an excuse for protecting wrong actions or wrong intentions that we have. This requires honesty with oneself, which is not easy, and is a whole other subject!)

4. No Sexual Misconduct

Abstaining from sexual misconduct means different things for a layperson, and for someone who becomes a monk, who has decided to dedicate his life to meditation for the sake of going out of suffering. For a layperson, it simply means that one will never commit adultery, or any sexual act that is not accepted in his society. Adultery is akin to the lowest kind of thievery, and is completely unacceptable for one who wants to work on himself and develop qualities in himself. Even any act of “sleeping around” is not considered in line with morality; being an action that is driven purely by sensual desire, which in itself is a block to progress in meditation; and has almost always complicated and problematic consequences which we wish to avoid.  

Monks, and the people who decide to stay at this school, decide to renounce all sexual activity altogether, for the sake of focusing all their energy on their practice, and helping their minds to become calm and concentrated. For this purpose, “sexual activity” includes any actions that are involved with sensuality-sexuality – kissing, hugging, touching; couple-making, as well as sexual intercourse. If we do not give up this act, it means we continue to look for and depend on pleasure and happiness in sex and sensuality, with our minds constantly distracted by this subject – instead of being “an island to ourselves,” depending only on ourselves and our practice, and focusing on working towards our aim. While sex by itself is not “immoral” in society, it is “immoral” for a meditator, in that it is very detrimental to his practice and it takes him in the opposite direction of his goal – thus, it is harmful and wrong for him to do.

5. No Alcohol or Drug

To abstain from intoxication means to give up taking any substance that alters the mind and the behaviour of the one who takes it. Alcohol and drugs cause us to be more loose, more careless, with less shame and less regard for the consequences of the actions we do. How many acts of adultery happen when people are drunk? How many fights are started by people who have taken alcohol? How many accidents are caused when people are not in their “right mind”? When we take intoxicants, we not only create conditions for risky behaviour; often it means that we are wanting to use being drunk as an excuse for misbehaviour, to act in a way that we would not normally permit ourselves to act.

Intoxication goes directly in the face of the work of a meditator – our aim is to be aware and alert in everything we do; this makes us unmindful and careless; we want to watch all the time what is going on in our mind; with this we make sure that our mind will be lost in the cloud; we want to practice wisdom; this makes us stupid. Not only do we hurt ourselves and our practice, we risk hurting others out of the stupidity of intoxication, or out of other bad qualities that become bigger and more powerful when we are intoxicated. Does anyone know anyone who is a wiser person when they are drunk compared to when they are sober?