Part I

Training in Virtue

Precepts for Lay People

There are three sets of precepts for laypeople: the five precepts, the eight precepts, and the ten guidelines. Here we will discuss the five and the eight precepts first, saving the ten guidelines for later.

The five precepts can be divided into two sorts: those dealing with bodily action and those dealing with speech. Normalcy in bodily action is expressed by three precepts: refraining from taking life, from stealing, and from engaging in illicit sex. Normalcy in speech is expressed by the precept against lying, which involves refraining not only from lying, but also from divisive tale-bearing, from coarse or abusive speech, and from aimless or idle talk. As for the precept against taking intoxicants, it fits in with the third precept—against illicit sex—in that both deal with forms of intoxication.

The eight precepts are derived from the five—and, like the five, can be divided into two sorts. Seven deal with bodily action: refraining from taking life; from stealing the possessions of others; from any and all sexual intercourse; from taking intoxicants; from eating food during the period from noon until the following dawn; from watching dancing, singing, instrumental music, and other shows, and from using garlands, perfumes, cosmetics, and jewelry; and from using high and luxurious beds and seats.

The precept dealing with speech is to refrain from telling lies—and also from divisive tale-bearing, from coarse or abusive speech, and from aimless or idle chatter, these latter three being conducive to outright lying.

The precepts, whether five or eight, are ultimately two: right normalcy in bodily action and right normalcy in speech. Sīla, the Pali word for virtue and precept, literally means normalcy—a quality that can be separated into either five or eight component virtues. The eight uposatha precepts do away with more defilements of bodily action than do either the five precepts or the ten guidelines. The bodily actions of a person who observes them weigh lightly, like those of one who is ordained. (Speaking of ordination, for women at least, it would appear that a person who observes the eight precepts does away with more greed, anger, and delusion in terms of bodily action than did the sikkhamānās (aspirants to nunhood) of the past. Although as a novice the sikkhamānā was expected to observe the ten precepts, still when she was about to be ordained as a nun she had to be strict in observing only the first six.) So whoever observes the eight precepts can be said to lead one form of the holy life—kāla-brahmacariya, temporary renunciation—the only difference being that one doesn’t have to change one’s mode of dress.

It’s a rare man or woman who will act in this way. Whoever does can be counted as a person of value, a vessel for what is skillful, into which the practice of concentration (samādhi) should be placed.

The ten guidelines, unlike the five and eight precepts, don’t have to be taken as vows. Once you understand them, simply go ahead and follow them. Altogether, they are of three sorts; three principles dealing with bodily action, four with speech, and three with the heart. The three principles dealing with bodily action are like those of the five precepts: not taking life, not stealing, and not engaging in illicit sex or taking intoxicants (the last two being counted as one). The four principles dealing with speech are derived from the precept against lying: refraining from lying; from divisive tale-bearing; from coarse or abusive speech; and from idle, aimless, and useless chatter.

The three principles dealing with the heart are: anabhijjhā—not coveting the possessions of others; abyāpāda—not feeling ill will, i.e. not wanting others to suffer misfortune; and sammā-diṭṭhi—right view, being convinced that good and evil really exist, and that the pleasure and pain we experience come from our own good and bad actions: Whoever does good will meet with good, whoever does evil will meet with evil.

So altogether there are ten guidelines. These guidelines are termed kusala kammapatha, skillful policies or clean actions. They are policies that should be adopted and followed—the more constantly, the better. Defilements related to greed will die away; those related to anger and delusion won’t have a chance to arise. Greed arises from the thought of coveting—focusing desire on what you want to acquire—which is then expressed as greed in one’s thoughts, words, and deeds. One’s thoughts thus become restless and disturbed, struggling to the point where they create trouble in thought, word, and deed—a whole pile of unskillfulness and defilement. As for anger, it arises from ill will, which then gives rise to hostility and finally to anger, fury, and violence. One’s thoughts, words, and deeds thus become unskillful. Delusion arises from wrong views, from ignorance of right and wrong, good and evil, making one’s thoughts, words, and deeds unskillful and defiled.

So you should kill these things off at their source. Kill off covetousness by sharing your possessions with others—with your children, brothers, sisters, relatives, friends, monks, nuns, and recluses—which in the long run will be to your own benefit. This is termed generosity (dāna). Kill off ill will by developing thoughts of good will, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity; and avoid detrimental actions by observing the precepts (sīla). Kill off wrong views by associating with people who are knowledgeable, learning from them so as to develop your own discernment into how to do what is good. This is termed mental development (bhāvanā).

These are the techniques for curing greed, anger, and delusion. Covetousness, ill will, and wrong views are the taproots of defilement; greed, anger, and delusion are the crown. The thoughts, words, and deeds that express these qualities form the trunk and branches, and the fruit is pain: the pain of birth, aging, illness, and death; of sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair. Normally, when we’ve eaten the flesh of a fruit, if we don’t destroy the seed, it will have a chance to sprout and form another tree. So it is with defilement: If we don’t destroy the seed, it’ll produce more fruit. Thoughts tainted with clinging: These are the seed. People who don’t realize this imagine this fruit to be something tasty and delicious, and so are unwilling to abandon and destroy covetousness, greed, ill will, and wrong views. As a result, they spin around in this cycle in various ways, under the influence of these three sorts of defilement. When these defilements arise in full force, whatever status one may have will be shattered, whatever wealth one has will be lost, the good opinion of others will turn to censure, one’s happiness will turn to misery, one’s friends will flee, and one’s family will fall apart—or even if it doesn’t fall apart, it will be pained with sorrow, as if its heart had been scalded with boiling water.

So we should kill off these defilements by being generous with our belongings; by observing the five precepts, the eight precepts, or the ten guidelines; and by practicing concentration to develop the mind, making it firm, unwavering, and still. Once these defilements die, then even if you’ve never had wealth, you’ll be wealthy; even if you’ve never known happiness, you’ll be happy; even if you’ve never reached heaven, you’ll get there; even if you’ve never reached nibbāna, you’ll attain it, constant and unchanging, in line with the Buddha’s verse on the rewards of the five precepts:

sīlena sugatiṁ yanti

Through virtue they go to heaven.

sīlena bhoga-sampadā

Through virtue wealth is attained.

sīlena nibbutiṁ yanti

Through virtue they go to liberation—

secure happiness, free from all suffering and stress.

tasmā sīlaṁ visodhaye

Thus we should all purify our virtue.

Question: At what times should the five precepts, the eight precepts, and the ten guidelines be observed?

Answer: The five precepts and ten guidelines should be observed at all times—without any reference to morning, evening, noon, or night—as constant or timeless principles (nicca-sīla, akālika-sīla). As for the eight uposatha precepts, a pattern has been established—in line with the varying abilities and opportunities of laypeople—of gathering to observe the precepts together once every seven or eight days on the lunar sabbath: the day of the new moon, the full moon, and the eighth day of the waxing and waning moons—altogether four times a month. This pattern is for people who don’t have much time or opportunity. If, however, you have plenty of time and opportunity, let your own conviction be your guide. Focus on goodness and not on the calendar, observing the precepts on your own, making whatever day you observe them—no matter what the date or season—your own personal uposatha day.

Someone might object here, saying, “If it isn’t the lunar sabbath, then you can’t say you’re observing the uposatha precepts.”

“If they’re not uposatha precepts, what are they?”

“Just the ordinary eight precepts.”

“Is it good or bad to observe the eight precepts?”


“And we observe the precepts for the sake of the good, don’t we? So if we’ve hit the good right on the nose, what does it matter if we’ve hit the wrong day?”

Here we should translate the word “uposatha.” Literally, it means “approaching respite” from all that is unskillful. So by definition, if there’s no respite from corruption in your actions, then it’s not uposatha day. There’s no way you can guarantee that this or that date is an uposatha day, because “uposatha” doesn’t mean the eighth day or ninth day or whatever. Still, the pattern of observing the eight precepts on the lunar sabbath is a good one for people who don’t have much opportunity. But if you do have the opportunity, you shouldn’t limit yourself just to those days, because virtue, by its nature, isn’t too particular about the date.

This being the case, we should set up gradations so that those who feel inspired to practice can do so as they are able:

1. The first group observes the eight precepts on each lunar sabbath during the rainy season: three months, four days a month, thus twelve days. This is termed mudu, the weak level.

2. The intermediate level—majjhima uposatha—observes the eight precepts on each lunar sabbath, without fail, throughout the year: twelve months, four days a month, thus 48 days a year.

3. The highest level—ukkaṭṭha uposatha—observes the eight precepts on each lunar sabbath, and on the day before and the day after each sabbath, without reference to month or season: twelve months, twelve days a month, thus 144 days a year. This is for people of firm conviction. Or, if you want, you can aim higher than that and observe the eight precepts at all times and in every season, focusing on the quality of virtue itself instead of on the ordinances and conventions of the world—just like the Buddhist nuns who, in our day and times, observe these very same eight precepts.

Virtue can be established on one of two bases: either through (1) making a vow (samādāna-virati), as when we repeat the precepts after a monk or novice (here it is also necessary to learn exactly what vices and misdeeds are forbidden by each of the five or eight precepts); or (2) simply deciding on our own to abstain from a particular vice or misdeed (sampatta-virati). In other words, when you want to keep the precepts pure, you can go ahead and decide to refrain from misconduct on your own. Once virtue is established, and you are careful to safeguard it out of a sense of conscience so that it doesn’t lapse, this is termed samuccheda-virati: absolute abstinence.

For virtue to be maintained depends on two factors: perseverance and the four sublime attitudes (good will, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity). An example of keeping the precepts through perseverance would be: Suppose you’re accustomed to killing animals. If you decide to observe the precepts, you hold off for a day or so, but you have no strong compunctions against taking life, so you depend on a strong sense of perseverance to get you through. Once you get past your self-imposed time limit, you go back to your old ways. Observing the precepts through perseverance in this way means to exercise self-control so as not to commit whatever misdeeds you’ve been accustomed to.

Question: Is there any merit or skillfulness in observing the precepts in this way?

Answer: There is—as far as that particular day is concerned. Seeing the light every once in a long while is better than never seeing it at all.

To observe the precepts through the sublime attitudes, though, means to wish for the happiness of other living beings, to sympathize with the fact that no one wants to suffer, that we all desire well-being and freedom from harm. Once you realize this and a sense of compassion arises, you wouldn’t dare transgress the precepts you’ve undertaken. Observing the precepts through good will in this way bears powerful rewards.

Whoever puts virtue fully and completely into practice can aspire to any attainment: rebirth as a human being, rebirth in heaven, or nibbāna. Such a person can aspire to a beautiful appearance and voice, fragrant aromas, delicious tastes, delicate sensations, and a good heart. To have virtue is to have wealth: The five precepts are equal to 50 pounds of gold bullion; the eight precepts, 80 pounds; the ten guidelines, 100. Actually, moral virtue is something valuable beyond price. Virtue and generosity, taken together, are the qualifying factors for rebirth as a human being and rebirth in heaven. Virtue, generosity, and the development of the mind through meditation are the qualifying factors for nibbāna. So we should all try to find the time to perform those actions that will lead to our solid welfare in the coming future.