The Five Precepts

When I undergo Jukai within the Tendai tradition in July, I will take a vow to follow the five precepts. This is something that I take very seriously and have been reflecting on recently.

The Mountains and Rivers Zen Order of Zen Buddhism has a good summary of the precepts and Jukai online at While I am not a Zen practitioner, Tendai is also a Japanese form of Buddhism which has close ties to Zen historically so everything said here is pretty much the same.

In a sense, the precepts are not difficult in the most part but that is only true if you take them in the most limited, focused sense. As an exercise in a certain kind of mindfulness and the promotion of certain attitudes or activities on the part of the practitioner, they become more difficult.

The first five precepts (as there are many more taken at points in training) are to abstain from:

  1. harming or killing living beings
  2. taking things not freely given (stealing)
  3. sexual misconduct
  4. false speech
  5. intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.

The Friends of the Western Buddhist order define the precepts as:

The core ethical code of Buddhism is known as the five precepts, and these are the distillation of its ethical principles. The precepts are not rules or commandments, but 'principles of training', which are undertaken freely and need to be put into practice with intelligence and sensitivity. The Buddhist tradition acknowledges that life is complex and throws up many difficulties, and it does not suggest that there is a single course of action that will be right in all circumstances. Indeed, rather than speaking of actions being right or wrong, Buddhism speaks of the being skilful (kusala) or unskilful (akusala).

Rather than commandments or simple rules, they are guidelines and include intent and circumstances to help shape our lives.

In day to day life, following the fourth is probably the hardest for me. To not lie is a diffult problem in how we live our lives. To promote truthfulness in general is even more difficult. At the end of the day, I have to worry about my own conduct long before I should even consider that of others. Given my natural tendency to lose my temper and speak harshly, I find the fourth difficult. For some, the third or the fifth might be most difficult. I would like to think that the first is easier but these precepts apply in all times and all places, not just the day to day urban life of America.

Thich Nath Hanh, a deservedly famous Vietnamese Zen teacher, has formulated The Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are an adaptation of the first five Buddhist precepts. He updates the presentation of the precepts to make them comprehensible to all.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings (according to Thich Nath Hanh,

First Training

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.

Second Training

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am committed to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

Third Training

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.

Fourth Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticise or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

Fifth Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I am committed to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.