On the five precepts

Branching out from the discussion, Existence after Death, Nihilism, and Anattā:

Actually the more I dwell on the precepts the more profound (and therein tricky to observe) they seem to me. When I’m feeling especially wild-minded I can even start to speculate as to whether they are just another description for the entire teaching (the ‘philosophical’ existential aspects included).

To give the point at least a little canonical substance, I think AN 10.176 points to how much more deeply we can approach the precepts than simply don’t kill, steal, sleep around, lie, or take intoxicants.


Props for referring to AN 10.176. Especially the part about envy:

“And how is one made impure in three ways by mental action? There is the case where a certain person is covetous. He covets the belongings of others, thinking, ‘O, that what belongs to others would be mine!’ He bears ill will, corrupt in the resolves of his heart…"


Thanks for sharing this, Aminah, I quite enjoyed reading it. Interesting how the sutta doesn’t include the fifth precept (which is by far the most difficult for me to keep). Because the Buddha separates skillful/unskillful bodily, mental, and verbal action, would intoxicants be considered both unskillful bodily and mental action?


If we look at "He engages in sensual misconduct. " is that limited to sexual misconduct?
If not what else that entails?

Even a case like, whether not taking intoxicants a part of the purification process.

Did Buddha say consuming alcohol is bad?

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Check How many times the fifth precept is found across the Pali Nikaya and you will see that yes, the Buddha in the Suttas did prescribe it as a training precept.

The fact the usual formulation includes all kinds of alcoholic beverages found in those times indicate the Buddha was being as explicit as possible on that.

Indeed it is not mentioned every single time the topic of right action comes up. But that may very well be an indication that when teaching to bhikkhus and bhikkhunis the contemplative status if such individuals made redundant mentioning the use of intoxicants!

Last but not least, let me recommend this beautiful essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi on the topic;

A Discipline of Sobriety


7 pages on this topic, possibly confirms the following:

He should not drink them nor encourage others to do so; realizing that it leads to madness.

Sn 2.14



When I read a commentary such as A Discipline of Sobriety I am aware that the element of the precept that makes the most sense to me is not the plain meaning of the precept itself but rather the implication drawn from it:

The Buddhist path in its entirety is a discipline of sobriety, a discipline which demands the courage and honesty to take a long, hard, utterly sober look at the sobering truths about existence.

But as for the precept itself as stated I am not convinced.
Thus the distinction between internal and external commitment arises for me. It seems to me that the Buddha wants us to be internally committed. So what is this distinction between internal and external commitment?

The Four Fold Noble Truths were proposed as if they were a medical diagnosis and a treatment plan. It’s a rational argument based on a relationship of cause-and-effect. Thus the Buddha seems to be inviting the listener to reason out the situation and come to their own conclusion.
When a person comes to their own conclusion, based upon whatever proof or reasoning that convinces them, then we say that person is internally committed. But if a person adopts a precept on faith or because someone else recommends it then we call that a external commitment.
Something like this distinction seems in my reading to be at least implied by the EBT.

I take it that these passages are an attempt to persuade me of a view. But I am not persuaded. I neither entirely embrace or reject the precept.

I see a distinction between being drunk in public as described in A Discipline of Sobriety and moderate enjoyment. But the reasoning in the Sutta does not recognized this distinction. A gap of acknowledgement that seems odd and inconsistent with the idea of skilled persuasion.


  • I’m not a monastic.
  • Not an alcoholic – and that makes a big difference.
  • Long before I came to Buddhism I had the precept of not drinking in the presence of alcoholics unless they were successfully “in recovery” and in most cases I had discussed it with them.
  • Driving a vehicle while under the influence is against my precept.
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I think precepts are practiced in many different levels.
The precepts practiced by a lay person is not the same level as a precepts practiced by a monk or an Arahant.
In regard to alcohol, the problem is the inability to maintain mindfulness while drunk.
Some may argue it is the same if one eat too much.
I stop consuming alcohol only after I started teaching Dhamma few years back.
Irrespective of mindfulness ( I used to take only one drink) I felt it is not an appropriate for Dhamma teacher to consume alcohol.
Even if that was the case, I felt there was a substantial improvement to my practice once I stopped consuming alcohol.


Interesting, thanks for sharing. In my case the undertaking of the fifth precept came as I started seeing correlation between my ability to experience stillness and the events and amount of alcohol I would consume.

I came to see a pattern between the non-taking of alcohol and a greater enjoyment and stronger moment in my commitment to pursuing stillness.

Nowadays, even if I take a sip of wine I tend to see that impacting my daily stillness sessions for something like 3-5 days. For that reason I have not consumed alcohol for a long while and strongly recommend all Dhamma friends to do so.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that in my experience, getting involved in things arguments, bad conversations (online or live) - i.e. failing to sustain right speech - tend to prove as harmful to my practice as “breaching” my commitment to abandoning use of substances that cause heedlessness.

Hence, I understand it is up to the individual to come himself/herself to the gradual but firm commitment to the precepts.

At first, it may be simply a matter of emulating the behaviours one understands as wholesome, desirable and beneficial, once fruits of that are heaped the whole thing should gain momentum in a upward spiral manner.

A relevant sutta that supports that understanding is the SN46.3.


[quote=“SarathW1, post:4, topic:5486, full:true”]
If we look at "He engages in sensual misconduct. " is that limited to sexual misconduct?
If not what else that entails?..[/quote]
There seem to be two takes on this – are both “official” (documented in the Sutta-s)?

1: In the “5 Precept” form, as in less formal lay retreats, as refraining from inappropriate or harmful sexual activity. I’ve heard/read that in the Buddha’s time this meant no activity along certain socially conditioned norms – with others’ spouses, or those under protection, e.g. children?

2: In the “8 Precept” form, as in more formal (e.g. Burmese) retreats, as refraining from any sexual activity whatsoever. “Brahma-acariya” as emulating Brahma as a non-anthropomorphic “god-head” sort of entity, i.e. not having human characteristics like sexuality.

Can anyone point to EBT bases for these flavors of the issue? Are they contextually contrasted in any one text?

[quote=“gnlaera, post:9, topic:5486, full:true”]
Interesting, thanks for sharing. In my case the undertaking of the fifth precept came as I started seeing correlation between my ability to experience stillness and the events and amount of alcohol I would consume. [/quote]
In addition to aspects like that, going without alcohol reminded me of first experiences, as a small child wanting to sample beer or wine that the adults were drinking, and, when permitted to taste it, how distasteful, bitter it actually was. Yuk! Why would you want to drink that?

Later on, high-school age, taking up drinking socially, recalling how it took getting used-to – was still basically distasteful, but one conditioned to ignore that; and then even to the extremes one comes across when people get into connoisseur affectations around “knowing good wine”, etc.

Now it’s largely a matter of “good-riddance” (except for fond memories of really good German or English beers :wink:).


MN 22 reports the Buddha declared he only taught about suffering & freedom from suffering (rather than “socially conditioned norms”). To the contrary, in general, it is Western ‘Buddhists’ who are generally interpreting ‘sexual misconduct’ based on their own socially conditioned norms.

This does not appear to be the case. For example, Iti 106 describes good loving parents who earn the respect of their children as ‘Brahma’. In Buddhist society (DN 31), such parents help arrange or chose a suitable partner (AN 4.55) for their children.

These are “norms”(dhammatithata) of natural law (aka ‘Dhamma-Niyama’). Having sex with other spouses results in social/family breakdowns (AN 4.53), leading to dysfunctional families & parentless children. Having sex with children is discerned as particularly harmful. Even sexual liberalism amongst adults in questionably healthy. Sexual misconduct in Buddhism is obviously unrelated to socially conditioned norms. In DN 31 it is said ‘liberal companion’ is a road to ruin.[quote=“cjmacie, post:11, topic:5486”]
fond memories of really good German or English beers

Before I found Buddhism, I used to manage a business selling German & English beers (although I quit that before I found Buddhism). Even before that, I was socially conditioned to indulge in the norm of sex-drugs-&-rocknroll. However, when I personally discerned the harmfulness of heedless sex, the drugs & rocknroll naturally fell away when I lost interest in sex (which was an interesting causal occurrence, which, at least for me, showed how drugs & rocknroll often revolve around sex).


I am hoping that you will share with us your speculations. I’ll share one of mine more specifically as it relates to social engagement.

In my judgement there is a strong need for socially engaged Buddhists to consider how the precepts, the 8 Fold Noble Path, and Buddhist ethics pertain to social engagement & socially engaged Buddhism. As such I imagine a set of guidelines and principles for a noble path of socially engaged action which can be derived from EBT.

One area that should be addressed is the relationship of the dharma to western notions of intellectual, scientific and scholarly integrity and humility. These ideas help to illustrate a disciplined Buddhist approach to the practice of, what in western terms, might be called the interrogation of the mind. They are also a form of actively anti-divisive speech.

This passage has parallels to the ideals of scientific or scholarly integrity as well as humility.

… scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.
– from Caltech’s 1974 commencement address by Richard Feynman

Note: the idea of internal commitment is also suggested by the quote above.

I also tend to view the precepts as the narrow, core essentials of a broader approach to a wholesome, peaceful and ennobling life for which the precepts are just the start. Refraining from lying is the main building block of right speech, but not the whole of right speech. Intentional killing is the most stark way of inflicting harm, and refraining from killing is the first step on a path toward complete harmlessness. Sexual promiscuity is one especially powerful way of clouding one’s mind through indulgence of the senses. Transgressing society’s sexual norms tends to incite jealousy, fear, recrimination and crimes of passion. Clouding and weakening one’s mind with drink and drugs is just one way in which we damage our capacities for heedfulness, mindfulness and concentration. When we lie, we have to erect a complex edifice of discrepant narratives that we then have to juggle - a stressful and ego-reinforcing pattern of behavior.

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A very good distinction. But even when it comes to internal comitment, that internal commitment can also be because of wrong reasons, such as respecting principles a certain person has. You have also quoted something about scientific integrity and principles. Such principles are a wrong reason to take a course of action and they are based on idealism, so even internal commitment can be because of wrong reasons. From a Buddhist point of view, we should adopt a course of action based on pragmatism. One of the 3 fetters removed by a stream enterer is rigid observance of rules and vows.

So what pragmatic reason is there for not consuming alcohol ? The starting point is how this world works and how to escape it. We can not eliminate craving by just wanting to elimitate craving. We need to follow a series of steps and gradually achieve the goal. For example it is difficult to eliminate craving by living in a mansion full of woman and cocaine. Even if we have really do want to follow the path and reduce craving, it will be difficult to do it in bad circumstances, such as in a mansion full of woman an cocaine. It is much more difficult to resist indulging in pleasure when we are in close proximity to it. This is why the monk lifestyle was invented. A person will follow the path much more easily if he finds himself in certain conditions.

We need to be pragmatic about it. We may say “I am going to eliminate craving even in this huge mansion full of woman and cocaine” but that is simply much more difficult to do. We need to follow the path by respecting the laws of physics and pragmatism.

It is because of this that indulgence in alcohol should be gradually reduced. It reduces mindfulness and develops bad tendencies for the mind. It is detrimental to the path, to the series of steps we need to take in order to achieve the goal.

Buddha knew people are inclined to respect rules out of rigidity and out of narcissism, to feel superior to other persons not respecting such strict rules. But even in such a case, respectance of those rules is still beneficial to the person. Buddha, pragmatic as always, created these 5 percepts as a way to help lay people who did not understand why these 5 percepts were even created. The rules for bhikkhus also serve the same purpose: to force the person out of narcissism, shame, conformism, whatever - to respect some rules that are beneficial for him, even if he does not do it out of pragmatism and out of proper understanding of the path. Even without following them out of pragmatism, they are still beneficial. And even a person who understands the path might still use narcissism, conformism, etc to his advantage. If he is not an arahant, such pressures exist in him even to a small degree. And he can let them help him in respecting rules out of rigidity, therefore helping him achieve the goal.

Going by the principle of ‘see for yourself’ I’d probably sooner advocate directly poking into the precepts to see if there’s any validity in the proposed notion rather than inviting me ramble on about the embryonic ideas that occur to me as I engage with the practice. :wink:

Briefly though, very much along the lines Dkervick’s comments, I think it’s quite easy to start pealing away at what may initially look like very concrete, straightforward prescriptions and discover there are ever more subtle layers that lie beneath. When examining in such a way, I find it difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that it’s only for a deep (deluded) commitment to fortifying one’s construction of self that one would be remotely interested in behaviour that would deviate from the precepts. We can thereby quickly trip into an exploration of the three characteristics of existence or dependant origination.

When trying to think of how to answer your invitation to speculate, I first wondered if it would be possible to put forward the precepts as an expression of the Four Noble Truths. It works well enough for me - suffering, sensual & existential craving, cessation and a way out all seem to be there - but I’m open to the possibility of it being an overly awkward fit.

I think you’re probably quite right to suggest there are those who follow the precepts as a matter of rigidity and are further quite right to observer the pragmatic benefit of this. I will just note, however, that personally, I endeavour to follow the precepts because I love them.


For me, the hardest precept to keep is the one about lying. I feel a constant pressure to lie in order to protect other people, and to be emotionally strong to protect others who are emotionally weak. I mean lies like this:

How was your day?

Did you like that zucchini bread?
Yes, it was very good.

Things aren’t good here. How are they with you?
Everything is going great here.

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@Dkervick, That you for your response. I ask because my mind often tends to “wrap itself around a question” differently than it does for most people. I regard the assumption that my thinking about a topic is going to be about the same as for someone else – that’s a risky assumption. Also, there are the times when someone’s else’s thoughts are surprising.

I come to a similar, broader view. To those I would add (among others) the idea of intellectual integrity such as espoused in the [quote=“the famous Caltech 1974 commencement address by Richard Feynman, post:13, topic:5486”]
Does the inclusion of some notion of this type of integrity make sense to you as consistent with the precepts? I like to know if this idea feels right to others.

I view refraining from lying as one building block of avoiding self deception. One element of intellectual integrity is a mature embrace of how easy it sometimes is to fool myself. To quote Richard Feynman again:

But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves—of having utter scientific integrity—is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

The principle of ‘see for yourself’ strikes me as consistent with, or almost a re-statement of, valuing and promoting internal commitment over external commitment. Thank you for reminding me of it. I feel wiser because of your kind reflections.

I like the approach of seeing for myself and hearing from others what they see. They are complementary and it seems to be the practice of the wise.

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Actually you can make it to not be a lie.

How was your day?
Great! (They all Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta)

Did you like that zucchini bread?
Yes, it was very good. (They all just taste. Sweet taste, bitter taste etc)****

Things aren’t good here. How are they with you?
Everything is going great here. ( Impermanence - Every bad things come to an end as much as the good)

When you think these eight thoughts of a great person and become a person who can attain at will, without trouble or difficulty, these four jhanas — heightened mental states providing a pleasant abiding in the here & now — then your medicine of strong-smelling urine will seem to you to be just like the various tonics of a householder or householder’s son: ghee, fresh butter, oil, honey, and molasses sugar.

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Good point.
Many of us see Dhamma externally not internally.

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