Question about the five precepts

It has always struck me as odd that the lay follower undertaking the 5 precepts undertakes to kill no living being, presumably including things like flies and mosquitoes while a fully ordained monastic in the “higher” training is expelled only in the case they kill or advocate the killing of a human being, while doing something like shooting crows with arrows and beheading them for display on stakes only warranted confession.

I wonder if anyone can explain this discrepancy to me? Is it possible that the first pancasila actually started out as an injunction against murder, like the second parajika?

As in the sentence:

ariyasāvako pāṇātipātaṃ pahāya pāṇātipātā paṭivirato hoti

Does it actually say “living beings”?

pāṇātipātā Could mean to “slay with one’s hands”?

Does anyone have any information about the compound and it’s etymology or history of etymological glosses given?



I don’t think it matters too much does it? Killing animals has a considerable impact on one’s ability to meditate. The kinder and more compassionate you are towards whatever you deem as sentient beings seems (to me) to result in a more peaceful mind. The direction of travel is clearly towards non harm.

I guess that you don’t even need to confess this if you are a lay Buddhist, so there is a greater burden on the monastic? Maybe?


I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t think it mattered?
I am one of those “weirdos” who is on this forum to discuss the EBT’s, not my or others personal practice.

So my interest here is really about what the EBT’s actually say and what they might have actually meant, NOT whatever interpretation of them people think is most conducive to spiritual practice now.

Like, it’s interesting for its own sake, as a subject of enquiry, to understand the texts on thier own terms, rather than as a prop for whatever morality or philosophy you already have, so that the actual meaning of the words “doesn’t really matter”.

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In the case of a sāmaṇera, he could in fact be disrobed for breaking any of the first five of his ten precepts, though this would be at his preceptor’s discretion. His disrobing wouldn’t be mandatory as in the case of a bhikkhu who kills a human.

In the case of a bhikkhu who intentionally kills an animal, though it’s true that he is merely required to confess the offence, nevertheless, if he were to repeatedly and shamelessly fall into that offence, then there are additional sanctions that could be taken against him.

For example, if he was of nissayamuttaka status (i.e., senior enough to not have to live in dependence on a teacher), then that status could be abrogated, so that he would have to live once again under a teacher’s supervision. Or he could be subjected to one or another of the various kinds of ostracism, suspension or banishment.


OK. No worries. Just use my second answer then. You have started this in the watercooler section rather than the discussion section, though. Just sayin’. Anyway, the precepts are for all Buddhists, not just the lay followers. That there is a higher burden on one in higher training for transgressing them should not be surprising.

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Thank you for the information @Dhammanando
I am looking at this more from the perspective of the texts at the time they where composed tho, not so much from the perspective of contemporary practice.

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I wasn’t writing about contemporary practice, but about the disciplinary procedures given in the Vinaya Pitaka. In contemporary practice, as it happens, these procedures are pretty much dead letter.


Oh! Ok. I’m not across my Vinaya :slight_smile:

Is this what you meant as your second answer? I guess I thought you where joking.

The compound pāṇātipātā has ‘living being’ (literally breathing being) as its first part. It means ‘the destruction of life’.

It wasn’t a joke. Unlike say Catholicism (the only other religion I know), there is no burden of confession for lay Buddhists (in the EBTs) as far as I know.

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“Pāṇā” means, living beings.

You could think of the first precept as a circle. At the middle is the stuff which everyone agrees is obviously very bad, illegal, or morally reprehensible. Toward the edges are the things on which opinions could possibly differ. Most of the pacittiya-type offences are generally closer toward the “edge” of the circle. Although the texts do not have a concept of an offence of aggravated cruelty to animals, there are certain things one could do that would make the offence weightier, after the full scope of monastic jurisprudence has been applied, as Bhante @Dhammanando has mentioned.

None of the things in the circle of killing are things which you SHOULD do, however, as you get closer to the edge of the circle, there may be things that you HAVE to do, on account of lay livelihood.

If you are after more social context than that, I sometimes moonlight as an armchair brahmin lawyer, but I don’t know what is useful for you. Hindu ethics and legal thinking at the time of the buddha was for the twice-born, most of the texts detailing codes for the working class came much later.

By contrast, what happened in the medieval period in Jainism, for example, was that a whole class of literature emerged attempting to give detailed lay moral codes for lay Jains as a general class. Buddhism never quite developed such an explicit set of literature, so we have to borrow reasoning based on the vinaya (or occasionally on the basis of secular reasoning) as a way of shining a Buddhist light on the details of lay precepts. There have been a number of debates as to the true source of Buddhist ethics, i.e. whether these proceed from the secular law, or whether the secular law should proceed from Buddhist ethics, however, as they occurred in Burmese, I don’t have original sources. The Pali texts themselves highlight the secular and universal nature of the first four precepts, for example, defining murder as being “murderous and bloody-handed”, and lying primarily in terms of perjury or serious lying. If you break the first four (edited: remorselessly), you are not just not a Buddhist, you have failed in some respect as a human and are going to go to hell. See examples of further definitions given at SuttaCentral AN10.211 Hell.

There are some Buddhist texts (Dharmaguptaka vinaya commentary) which suggest that it is not strictly required for a Buddhist lay practitioner to never ever kill a living being. T. No. 1804, 40–2, 77a15–21, in the Chinese Tripitaka, actually suggests that the removal of pests is a duty of a kappiya (the lay attendant helping out the monks). A lot of lay livelihoods require various types of harm to animals and minor killing, like digging the soil, cutting plants, etc, but these aren’t an absolute barrier to Buddhist lay practice unless you are actually a butcher. For certain classes of people, like kings, their business of state involves punishments of even human beings, but they are still able to be Buddhist lay people.

My personal opinion is that what is strictly meant by the five precepts is that one won’t break the law (the four precepts), + alcohol, which is specifically for Buddhists (i.e. as much as I would love to see alcohol bans, it isn’t required for Buddhists to lobby for them in general). Keeping in mind that what was meant by “the law” at the time had a deeper moral component than what is meant today, with adultery and some forms of extramarital sex being illegal. I haven’t asked my teachers directly about this, but I was given “updated” materials where Buddhist sexual ethics have been modified to include concepts like consent, so we can see that the secular law is very influential in this respect.

Serious lay Buddhist practitioners will often confess, and may even ask to retake, precepts they have broken. It is not uncommon for lay residents at a monastery to attend a fortnightly ceremony of taking precepts that mirrors the monastic one. If this is done, the purpose is freedom from remorse and individual training. You would do something like that to help get your mind still enough for meditation and to practice for the future. It’s a bit different to the equivalent concept of purification in brahmanism, which is about pollution/purity and caste status.

One time, at a temple I was attending, a supporter grabbed the bins and sprayed the maggots (dead) in front of everyone. While this sort of thing is distasteful and likely very unnecessary, no-one was arguing that this person should have their temple membership revoked on account of being a flagrantly precept-discarding non-Buddhist. In some respects, they (arguably) did the temple a favour, by doing the thing the rest of the upasikas wouldn’t do. I think it’s also possible that they could train to be more mindful to deepen their commitment to the first precept if they chose to do so. HOWEVER, if they killed a human and weren’t remorseful, yeah, I think that would be grounds to revoke their temple membership due to not being Buddhist.

While everyone wants to see animals protected and less killing, sometimes preaching at temples can go in strange directions. YES devout Buddhists love animals, but if you wanted that to be your whole religion, you could theoretically join PETA or the Jains who are doing a more thorough job at it. I don’t think the success of the Buddhist religion as a whole rests on the fact that individual lay practitioners are doing a great job at not swatting mosquitoes (although it’s great that many people do avoid doing this). Once, at school, I had to sit out of tennis in physical education class because there were ants on the court- I sat out of so many things, including the toad lab in university- and while I was happy to do so, I could see why equally sincere Buddhists would choose not to sit out, given that things like one’s education and livelihood are equally legitimate lay concerns.

Like I said though, some of these issues have been debated. While I believe I’m representing the literature to the best of my ability, others might legitimately have different opinions. I can’t ever tell anyone that there are no kammic consequences if you do choose to play tennis on an ant court. What I can tell you is that Buddhism is a magnificent religion and offers so many chances to do good that in the long term, the choices of individuals to undertake livelihoods that include minor harm or minor killing may not be the deciding factor for your post-mortem fate or your journey in samsara.


Oh my goodness @Suvira you have given me much to read!! I will get to the body of your post tomorrow as I haven’t the time to do it justice right now.


I can’t find this in the PTS dictionary, do you have a reference for this?


Do you have a source for this?

The problem is that you are conflating monastic law with ethics. It’s often done and leads to identifying non-existent problems. It’s also understandable since the two are entwined.

The five precepts =/= Vinaya for lay people.

I’m wondering if you could clarify if you are saying that breaking the 5 precepts makes you not a Buddhist. If so, can you share some textual support for that?

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The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary

Pāṇa, (fr. pa+an, cp. Vedic prāṇa breath of life; P. apāna, etc. ) living being, life, creature D. III, 48, 63, 133; S. I, 209, 224; V, 43, 227, 441 (mahā-samudde); A. I, 161; II, 73, 176, 192; Sn. 117, 247, 394, 704; Dh. 246; DA. I, 69, 161; KhA 26; ThA. 253; PvA. 9, 28, 35; VvA. 72; DhA. II, 19.—pl. also pāṇāni, e.g. Sn. 117; Dh. 270. ‹-› Bdhgh’s definition of pāṇa is “pāṇanatāya pāṇā; assāsapassās’āyatta-vuttitāyā ti attho” Vism. 310.

So not Pāṇā, but Pāṇa?

I’m a bit confused.

What I had meant is that remorseless, flagrant lack of attempt to keep the first four of the five precepts is incompatible with human rebirth, as well as the practice of Buddhism. I will clarify the original post with a bracketed addition.

I can get you sources, but don’t know which ones you want, as there is a concept of a “half Buddhist” who takes refuge only, but not sure if that is the track you are on.

RE: that being a Buddhist entails keeping five precepts- “it is known”.

Any would be fine. It’s not something I have ever come across. I suppose it is a little complicated by the definition of what a Buddhist is.

My understanding has always been that going for refuge is the definition of who a Buddhist is. Otherwise do you become not-a-Buddhist the moment you break a precept until you take it again?

Obviously I’m not trying to say that someone is a “good Buddhist” if they intentionally don’t keep the precepts. And I would also say that keeping the precepts is a “duty” of being a Buddhist. But that somehow you suddenly become not a Buddhist when you break one, that’s news to me.

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So my etymological deconstruction of pāṇātipātā is obviously incorrect?

Is there a scholarly consensus that this compound is “slay breathing beings” not “slay by one’s hand”?

I appreciate that I have started a “water cooler” chat and a lot of what is being said is very interesting but I am actually asking more about the possible meanings of the texts back then rather than anything about ethics.

Digital Pali reader gives;

| — | — |

pāṇi: the hand; the palm. (m.)
atipāta: slaying; killing. (m.)

Is this just a computer error? Is there a good