What is the Historical/Textual Origin of the Precepts

Are the Precepts - five, eight or ten - specifically identifiable in the Suttas? What is their historical origin? Do they predate the historical Buddha? Were they developed/articulated later?

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SN14.25 suggests that behaving in line or not in line with the five precepts causes beings to come together and converge in terms of their behavior.

To me this means that the courses of action precepts are all about training to refrain from drive beings through samsara independent of a Buddha or spiritual leader announcing them.

This is aligned with what I can see in the world, some people are naturally good in the sense they are biased towards behaving ethically and in line with the precepts.

At the same time, some people have a natural bias towards “dodginess” and therefore need to make an effort to move over to the good side of humanity.

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Nice question! Nice answer, gnlaera. My ‘off the top of my head’ impression of the suttas pretty well agrees; the encouragement towards basic ethical behaviour seems to be firmly anchored in the understanding of the basic functioning of the samsaric existence and where one might find oneself within it as a result of ethically ‘charged’ (negative or positive) behaviour.

That said, when I first read the question, I thought it might be interested in seeing if there are any kind of ‘origin stories’ for the precepts along the lines those found in the Bu/Bi Vibhaṅgas. Fascinating if there were any, but I may have misunderstood the direction of the Q.

As for the ‘predating the Buddha’ aspect, again fascinating! My guess would be very much yes, but in terms of substantiating I’m only really able to go as far as thinking of the Jains and then becoming quite fuzzy headed. I look forward to forthcoming answers.

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I have read somewhere that the mother of the would be Buddha - Maha Pajapathi Gotami - observed Uposatha prior to the Buddha’s birth. If this account is correct, then it predates the Buddha.
With Metta

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The little that we know indeed suggests that the uposatha is older than Buddhism, and even older than Jainism. There is no claim even in the Jain texts that Mahavira came up with it. Similar to the Buddhist texts even the Jain retro-projected mythological characters observed uposathas in the far past.

A common function both in Jain and Buddhist literature is to approximate and emulate the monastics for one day. The purpose probably has been to purify and protect - and in extension to ensure a heavenly rebirth.

So the source is probably not Vedic and not Jain but probably an older sramanic practice that was taken over by both large strands of Jainism and then Buddhism. We don’t know which other ‘wanderers’ observed it, or if e.g. Ajivikas also had an equivalent.

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From the perspective of the suttas the 5 precepts predate Buddhism:

Mendicants, these five gifts are great, original, long-standing, traditional, and ancient. They are uncorrupted, as they have been since the beginning. They’re not being corrupted now nor will they be. Sensible ascetics and brahmins don’t look down on them. What five? Firstly, a noble disciple gives up killing living creatures. By so doing they give to countless sentient beings the gift of freedom from fear, enmity, and ill will. And they themselves also enjoy unlimited freedom from fear, enmity, and ill will. This is the first gift that is a great offering, original, long-standing, traditional, and ancient. It is uncorrupted, as it has been since the beginning. It’s not being corrupted now nor will it be. Sensible ascetics and brahmins don’t look down on it. This is the fourth kind of overflowing merit …
Furthermore, a noble disciple gives up stealing. … Furthermore, a noble disciple gives up sexual misconduct. … This is the sixth kind of overflowing merit … Furthermore, a noble disciple gives up lying. … This is the seventh kind of overflowing merit … Furthermore, a noble disciple gives up alcoholic drinks that cause negligence. By so doing they give to countless sentient beings the gift of freedom from fear, enmity, and ill will. And they themselves also enjoy unlimited freedom from fear, enmity, and ill will. This is the fifth gift that is a great offering, original, long-standing, traditional, and ancient. It is uncorrupted, as it has been since the beginning. It’s not being corrupted now nor will it be. Sensible ascetics and brahmins don’t look down on it. - AN8.39

I doubt that you’ll find the 5 precept formula in any known texts that predate the suttas but that doesn’t mean they weren’t around at least informally. But I think it unlikely that we will ever know the answer to your question in any rigorous sense.

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The closest we have is from the Chandogya Upanisad. It doesn’t fit geographically but shows that there were older sets:

In CU 3.17.4 they are called dakṣiṇā, sacrificial gifts: austerity (tapas), generosity (dāna), integrity (ārjava), noninjury (ahiṃsā), and truthfulness (satyavacana).

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As other posters have noted, lists of the five, eight or ten actions to be refrained from, along with various encouragements and inducements to do so, are certainly present in the Suttas and Vinaya.

But I wonder, is it actually this that you are asking about? Or does your query concern the origin of the practice of deliberately undertaking precepts, whether by a personal resolve or some kind of formal ceremony?

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There’s quite a bit of overlap in the Indian Śramaṇic influenced traditions.


Jaina Four-fold Restraint:

  1. Ahiṃsā
  2. Satya
  3. Asteya
  4. Brahmacharya

Four Buddhist precepts:

  1. Pāṇātipātā abstention (similar to Ahiṃsā)
  2. Adinnādānā abstention (similar to Asteya)
  3. Kāmesumicchācāra abstention (similar to Brahmacharya)
  4. Musāvādā abstention (similar to Satya)

Five Jain Vows:
(one addition)

  1. Aparigraha

Five Buddhist Precepts:
(one addition)

  1. Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā abstention

We’ve seen in other threads that these fifth rules come later in history.
Moving forward in time a few hundred years…


Yamas in PatañjaliYogaŚastra:

  1. Ahiṃsā
  2. Satya
  3. Asteya
  4. Brahmacharya
  5. Aparigraha

(identical to Five Jain Vows)


Of course, each tradition considers their own slight variation to be the best, but there’s quite a bit of overlap.

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I think that it is worth checking Khumbha Jataka (Ja 512), which among some lay Theravadin communities is considered the origin story of the 5th precept:

:anjal:

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There’s terrific information here; what a wonderful place D&D is! My thanks to everyone, especially @Gabriel_L for references in the EBTs and to @Polarbear, @Gabriel and @SCMatt for more material: which I will follow up. :slightly_smiling_face::slightly_smiling_face: As @Aminah and @Nimal, suggest there are probably more origin narratives out there. :pray:

That the Buddha was drawing on established traditions is clear to me now, especially with regard to the first five precepts. I assume (without checking the text, just partially remembering various Dhamma talks) that the second five can all be found in the Vinaya.

@Dhammanando asks

But I wonder, is it actually this that you are asking about? Or does your query concern the origin of the practice of deliberately undertaking precepts, whether by a personal resolve or some kind of formal ceremony?

Yes, I am also wondering about their development, historically, both in terms of formulation and function. … I presume that they appear in ordination ceremonies; I wonder when lay people started asking to receive eight precepts when visiting monasteries.

I am also reflecting on how I see the concept of taking the precepts applied in the Western Buddhist lay environment … I observe that “taking five precepts” can function as a sort of conversion ceremony. (Here I think of a Thai monk who told a friend that she didn’t need to ask him for the precepts in this context, and also of finding that I could become a full on-line member of the BSWA only after I had taken/retaken the precepts on their linked page.) Some teachers/groups frequently reaffirm the taking of the precepts; others don’t. … I guess that in Buddhist tradition countries repetition of “the obvious” doesn’t seem so important as reaffirming/grasping at new beliefs/commitments does in the West. This could be quite wrong and, any way, my personal experience is necessarily limited and subject to error.

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Does ‘club membership’ confer any ‘benefits’? :wink: Buddhism as far as I am aware isn’t a club. A gift of dhamma is free and without strings attached.

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I have wondered this as well - fascinating to read everything here. Thank you.

I have also heard that for a monastic to drink alcohol is considered a minor infraction… can anyone confirm this?

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Yes, the way for the community to address the consumption of alcohol by a bhikkhu is addressed by Pācittiya #51

It is not necessarily a minor thing and one should not expect that bhikkhus in monastic communities would take lightly having one of their peers making use of alcohol.

I suggest checking the origin story for this rule:

https://suttacentral.net/pli-tv-bu-vb-pc51/en/horner

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Oh man, I only got a little bit of the way through that and light starts beaming from the Master’s eyebrow, starts to sound as ridiculous as the Lotus Sutra.

“Pacittiya are rules entailing confession. There are [92] Pacittiya and they are minor violations which do not entail expulsion or any probationary periods.” It’s not a parajika disrobing offense (no more Buddhist Monasticism for the rest of your (current) life) or anything, and it doesn’t require a meeting of the Sangha like the Sanghadisesas, no probationary period. So it is minor in that sense. But a monastic that repeatedly breaks this rule I think wouldn’t last long in a good sangha.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard that naughty Monks in Esahn region of Thailand sometimes get caught drunk alone or in groups and have to be prodded back to the monastery. These kind of events make the newspapers quite regularly, and I would hope laypeople would have enough of an idea of Vinaya to understand these aren’t very good monks. In Burma, apparently, this is unheard of. Of course, it’s not a tradition in Burma to shave the eyebrows off upon ordination, which would make them less identifiable in public. But that’s probably bordering on improper speech, maybe the country monks really are better behaved there.

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@Brahmali are there discernable layers of text in terms of antiquity here?

with metta,

I can’t believe it’s not butter!

No one can decide if it’s butter, margarine, or crisco.

Welcome to the butter-drama.

It’s a Jataka tale. The early bit tends to be only the stanzas or utterances, everything else is just folklorically charged narrative.

It’s very unique and likely the origin theory it presents! Did get to read it ?