Ep. 016: The Five Precepts and the Reduction of Suffering

How Morality can lead to "Happiness"

When I worked as an editor in the translation center of a large Buddhist temple near Los Angeles, one of our supervisors was a real stickler about using Christian language in our final editions. "Salvation," "Heaven," even "Prayer," were to be avoided.

He had a point. When one religion makes contact with another, there is often a great deal of misunderstanding of the "new" religion generated by comparisons--often faulty ones--with the "old" religion.

Is Buddhism Amoral?

This sort of confusion led, in the early days of contact between Christianity and Buddhism, to the "truism" that "Buddhism is an amoral religion." Despite a couple of centuries of solid contact, that misconception is still not uncommon. And to many, "amoral" equals "immoral."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Dharma Wheel's eight spokes remind us of the Noble Eightfold Path (and the deer of the first sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath); Shifeng Temple, Wutai Shan, China

The Buddha's foundational teaching is commonly called the "Four Noble Truths," and the last of these is called "The Noble Eightfold Path." These eight have been divided into three groups called the "Three Teachings" (Buddhism loves numbered lists!); they are: Morality, Meditation (or Practice), and Wisdom.

Upon reflection, its obvious that Morality should come first. After all, how could you sit down to meditate if you've just killed someone?

The importance of starting from the "ground up" is illustrated in a funny little book of seeming-nonsense stories called The 100 Parables Sutra.

In the tenth parable, a not-too-bright Village Chief had visited the three-story home of another rich man. Returning home, the Chief thought, "I am as rich as he is! Why should not I have such a house?"

So he hired a Builder to come, and instructed him to build a house just like that of the other rich man. After leveling the ground and laying the foundation, the Builder began raising the first floor.

"What are you doing?!" shouted the Village Chief.

"I'm building the house you asked for," the Builder replied.

"No!" said the Chief. "I do not want the first two floors--just the third one!"

As a guy I know used to say, "Everyone wants to get to heaven, but no one wants to climb the ladder." Many people claim they want Wisdom, but don't wish to live Morally or perform the diligent Practice necessary to get it.

"I Undertake the Training..."

Perhaps part of the problem in comparing Buddhist Morality to Christian is that Buddhism has PRECEPTS, not COMMANDMENTS. In place of "Thou Shalt Not," in one formulation the Five Precepts of Buddhism are stated like this:

  1. I undertake the training to avoid taking the life of sentient beings.

  2. I undertake the training to avoid taking things not given.

  3. I undertake the training to avoid sexual misconduct.

  4. I undertake the training to refrain from false speech.

  5. I undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication.

We'll look at these more closely later, but for convenience sake, we can summarize them as avoiding: killing; stealing; committing sexual misconduct; lying; and drinking or using drugs. But as we shall see, the ideas go way beyond these simple words.

Let me point out the importance of the words, "I undertake the training..." This recognizes that the person who makes such a vow is fallible, and further that this is a learning process: "Fall down seven times, stand up eight."


The Buddha teaches at the Deer Park in Sarnath; Daxingshan Temple, Xi'an

Perhaps the Christians who first encountered this ethical system were concerned that there was no Last Judgement and Eternal Reward or Punishment. This objection is handily dealt with by one of England's "proto-Buddhists," Christmas Humphreys, founder of the London Buddhist Society. In one of his books, entitled simply Buddhism, he wrote that "the Buddhist knows that the moral laws of nature carry with them both the punishment of disobedience and the virtuous man's reward. In Buddhism a man is punished by his sins, not for them."

Rephrasing that last bit, a Christian is punished for his sins; a Buddhist is punished by his sins.

You see, what those Christians missed was the Law of Karma, also called moral causation, the idea that one's behavior has consequences independent of any external "judge." Buddhists are generally taught to be aware of cause and effect, though "cause" is often expanded into the phrase "causes and conditions." (Briefly put: the conditions into which one is born--for instance, gender, social class, country, etc.--will have something to do with the choices one makes, and the results that follow from them. Other conditions may also affect karmic outcomes.)

So, Buddhism has a very strong moral system, if a naturalistic one. And that brings us to the concept of suffering.

"Suffering and the End of Suffering"

It is widely, though perhaps not entirely accurately, said that the point of the Buddha's teaching is an understanding of suffering, and bringing about its end. Linguistic quibbles aside, we "know" that he set out on his path as a response to the perceived suffering in the world, and to avoid his own repeated return to this suffering world. One story tells of his seeing an old person, a sick person, and a dead person, and reacting by setting out to seek enlightenment.

Once he attained that goal, he preached his very first sermon, the "Turning of the Wheel of Dharma," in which he said:

Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering. Union with unpleasant things is suffering; separation from pleasant things is suffering; not obtaining what we wish is suffering. In brief, the five aggregates which spring from attachment (that is, our make-up as "individual human beings") are all suffering.

Now, suffering is a much-misunderstood word. Most would agree that "Sticking a knife in your eye is suffering" or "The death of a loved one is suffering." But not getting the bike you want for Christmas? Learning that a menu item has been 86'd? Being stuck in traffic? Are these really suffering? (Well, maybe that last one.)

So some have sought a "better" translation for the Sanskrit word duhkha (spelled in Pali dukkha), and one of the best, though pretty cumbersome, seems to be "unsatisfactoriness." Worse than its form, though, is the idea that sticking a knife in one's eye is merely "unsatisfactory." (I'm reminded of an alleged line of mistranslation in a Hong Kong film's subtitles: "I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way!")

So let's stick with the traditional translation--suffering--recognizing that it can be either severe or extremely mild, as in "disappointment is suffering."

Kusala and Akusala

Thich Nhat Hanh's Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, from a 2003 visit

Underlying the specific Precepts is a remarkably practical principle.

Kusala means, in its essence, skillful. By extension, it can mean intelligent or expert; and morally, it can mean good, blameless, right, wholesome, and so on. It also has connotations of lucky, happy, healthy, prosperous--more the conditions that result from a kusala action than the action itself.

The opposite, then, is akusala: unskillful, blameworthy, wrong, unwholesome, etc.

When faced with a moral dilemma, one is not expected to blindly follow rules, for what list of rules can anticipate every situation? Rather, one is to choose that action which leads to the best karmic outcome for all.

Relief of a ship from the Buddhist temple at Borobudur (Wikipedia)

A story from the Jatakas--the legends of the Buddha in his lives previous to the one as Siddhartha Gautama--illustrates this beautifully.

Five hundred merchants had set out on a journey by ship, and among them was a robber prepared to kill them all to acquire their goods. The ship's captain, named Great Compassion, learned of the robber's intentions through a dream.

Thinking about how he might prevent this calamity, the Captain decided the only way to prevent the carnage--and thus to prevent the robber from receiving a grave consequence--was to kill the robber himself!

And so he did--out of compassion for the robber, and through his skillfulness.

The captain, of course, was the Buddha-to-be, and the 500 merchants were 500 Bodhisattvas, people who were themselves far along the path to enlightenment. Had the Captain told the intended victims, they might have killed the robber in rage, setting back their progress. And had he let the robber proceed, the robber would have spent untold eons in hell for killing Bodhisattvas.

So the most compassionate thing for all concerned was for Captain Buddha to take the stain upon himself, knowing that to murder the robber in cold blood was to delay his own enlightenment for "one hundred thousand eons." But this was preferable to permitting harm to either the robber or to half-a-thousand others.

Expansion of the Five Precepts

Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2006 (Wikipedia)

The Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh is arguably, after the Dalai Lama, the best-known Buddhist teacher alive today. He has written over 100 books--70 of those in English--and resided in France since the 70s as a result of his anti-war activism in Vietnam. Martin Luther King, a Nobel laureate himself, publicly nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

The Master has taken the Five Precepts listed above and expanded them into what he calls "The Five Mindfulness Trainings." Each is a marvelously non-sectarian blueprint for a better world. The titles of each are:

  1. Reverence For Life

  2. True Happiness

  3. True Love

  4. Loving Speech and Deep Listening

  5. Nourishment and Healing

Let's look at that last one, which in the original Fifth Precept advocated "avoiding intoxicants." Here it becomes "cultivating good health" for oneself and others through "practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming." It goes beyond physical ingestion to include "certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations"--anything that might "contain toxins."

One thing I like about this sort of "spin" is that it is not strictly a via negativa, but includes positive acts. Not killing, for example, becomes the active practice of compassion.

With that in mind, let's look at each of the Five Precepts more closely, not just as moral restrictions, but as ways of contributing positively to society.


The First Precept, to avoid the taking of life, is the one that leads some Buddhists, myself included, to become vegetarians. I have struggled with the direct killing of any creature; though I have lost the battle with mosquitoes and ants in the house, I still try to carry cockroaches outside.

But when I first became a vegetarian, I was not aware of the Precepts, and had only a passing knowledge of Buddhism. In fact, it was the virtue of Compassion, not the vice of killing, that catalyzed my practice.

As a means of reducing suffering, Compassion is a biggie. It involves not just not killing, but advocating for the right of other creatures to live happily. It also means kindness toward strangers, support of worthy causes, and essentially--to my way of thinking--virtually all of morality. The Mindfulness Trainings urge us to turn away from "violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism." To feel compassion is literally to "suffer with" others, and the more I do that, the less they will suffer.


The Second Precept, to avoid taking that which is not given, becomes for Thich Nhat Hanh "generosity," a turning away from "exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression."

If you have ever been robbed, either with a gun in your face (as I have) or through stealth, you know the feeling of violation, and the suffering that comes with it. So to take anything--including someone's trust, or dignity, or self-worth--is to cause suffering.

The Mindfulness Trainings also tie this Precept to being happy with what we have, and not "running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures." This reminds me that the point of these precepts is not just to reduce the suffering of others, but to cut down on our own suffering as well. It's pretty uncommon to find a person who goes around behaving badly toward others who is also at peace in her or his own heart!


The Third Precept would discourage adultery, promiscuity, and other misbehavior of a sexual nature. I have seen some teachers who used the word "sensual" instead of "sexual," saying that this Precept is meant to prevent any physical indulgence.

But I feel--and I'm certainly not alone here--that the point has more to do with healthy relationships than with unhealthy physicality. The Mindfulness Trainings speak of "True Love"; I would go beyond this to suggest working hard to decrease the suffering we cause in any kind of partnership, including with work colleagues and even customers.

Of course, as we'll see in the final story in this episode, sex is a big challenge. Engaged in mindfully, in a loving and mutual relationship, it can be one of life's greatest joys. But its counterfeit sometimes brings nothing but sorrow.


One element of the "Eightfold Path" is called "Right Speech." The Epistle of James says that, though the tongue is but a small member, like the rudder of a ship it can "turn" the entire person.

So the Fourth Precept prohibits not just lying, but all manner of unhealthy speech: angry words, discriminatory statements, belittling others, spreading false rumors and any form of gossip--all of the ways we can hurt others with words.

Instead, the Mindfulness Trainings tell us, we should cultivate "loving speech and compassionate listening." I'm reminded of the Rotary Club's "Four-Way Test":

  1. Is it the truth?

  2. Is it fair to all concerned?

  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

That's as good a guide to following the Fourth Precept as you're going to find.


The Fifth Precept sometimes generates just a little bit of controversy. Some take it to mean avoiding any alcohol or "recreational" drugs; others take it to mean avoiding an amount of those substances that could lead to intoxication.

Thich Nhat Hanh makes this one about "Nourishment and Healing," and calls the problem "unmindful consumption." As mentioned above, he would include here things consumed mentally as well as physically.

The problem with ingesting these substances--whether physically or mentally--is that they work directly against mindfulness, one of the primary elements of Buddhist practice. The Fifth Mindfulness Training says, "I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption."

That's powerful.

Summing Up

So what have we learned? The Five Precepts are really intended, not just as "moral rules," but as training principles for the creation of a settled mind. Putting them into practice will reduce, not only the suffering of others, but our own suffering as well.

I'll close with another terrific teaching story about the minefield that results from having to make moral choices.

A solitary practitioner was seated under a tree in the forest when a woman came to him. She was  carrying a jug of wine and a knife, and leading a goat. She presented the monk with a challenge: "Either drink the wine or make love to me, or I will kill thi goat before your eyes!"

Knowing that he could not be responsible for the creature's death, and realizing the entanglement that would result from making love to the woman, he opted for what he considered the least of three evils: to drink the wine.

And once he became inebriated, and his judgement destroyed, he made love to the woman, and then they killed and ate the goat together!


That brings this episode to a close. I hope this helps you see that the way we behave affects both ourselves and the others around us, and that the choices we make have consequences.

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: We'll talk about one of the most popular stories in East Asia--popular since the Ming Dynasty! It involves a monk, a pig, a river spirit, and a monkey, in a journey toward the West--that is, India--to get some Buddhist scriptures.