Some Thoughts on the Buddhist Ethical Precepts


It might seem as if the Buddhist ethical precepts–the basic injunctions against killing, stealing, lying, sexual misbehavior, and heedless intoxication–are relatively straightforward. You know: just don’t kill, steal, lie, screw around or get drunk. What could be clearer? But, alas, things are never so simple. As soon as we try putting the precepts into practice, we encounter difficulties in how to interpret them.

To begin with, there seem to be three different ways of viewing the precepts. The first is to interpret them as absolute rules—they’re what we mustn’t do if we’re to make progress along the path. Thanissaro Bhikkhu  exemplifies this approach when he writes, “the precepts are formulated with no ifs, ands, or buts. This means that they give very clear guidance, with no room for waffling or less-than-honest rationalizations.”

The second way is to view them as “training vehicles”: We follow them as best we can, taking notice of the consequences of both observing and violating them. As we do so, we gradually acquire an increasing faith in their value. This approach is exemplified in the story of the Quaker George Fox who, when William Penn asked him if he should continue to wear his ceremonial sword in contradiction to his Quaker pacifist beliefs, replied “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.” After a while, Penn stopped wearing it. “I have taken thy advice,” he told Fox. “I wore it as long as I could.”

The third way is to view them from a non-dual perspective. Eihei Dogen does just that when he comments on the Zen Precept against indulging in anger, saying “Not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty. There is an ocean of bright clouds. There is an ocean of solemn clouds.” While we may not fully grasp what Dogen means, one thing is for certain: we probably shouldn’t to take the precept too literally. A non-dual perspective can help us be less judgmental and more compassionate—neither wrongdoers nor sufferers are different from or separate from ourselves. On the other hand, a non-dual perspective can be misinterpreted to mean that since everything’s “empty,” there are neither perpetrators nor victims. This certainly isn’t what Dogen intended. A non-dual perspective requires a simultaneous awareness of both the non-reified interconnectedness-of-everything and the genuine suffering of and harm caused to real and specific individuals.

But let’s shift focus from considering general approaches to the precepts to considering their specific content. Let’s start by examining the Third Precept, the precept against sexual misconduct. While we’re all against sexual misconduct, the precept begs the question of how sexual misconduct is to be defined. What is it, and how can we recognize it when we see it?

Peter Harvey reviewed the way traditional Buddhist cultures define sexual misconduct in his An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2000). At different times in various traditional Buddhist cultures, masturbation, oral and anal sex, homosexuality, and overly frequent sex have all been designated as forms of misconduct. Many modern Buddhists tend to dismiss these traditionalist designations, replacing them with abstract Western principles relating to harm, consent and duties to third parties. They generally take a more benign view of sexual relations, so long as they occur between consenting parties and cause no harm.

Buddhist modernists make the assumption that traditional Thai, Tibetan or Japanese sexual ethics are really more Thai, Tibetan, or Japanese than Buddhist. They compare different traditional Buddhist cultures, observe the variations between them, and assign the particularities of these differences to the specific features of the local cultures. Once one decides that traditional Buddhist sexual ethics are no longer authoritative, however, what does one base a more modernist Buddhist sexual ethics on? What many modern Buddhists tend to do is to take pre-existing liberal secular ethics and import them wholesale into Buddhism. This may, in fact, not be all that different from the way that traditional cultures arrived at their designations of  misconduct. The Pali Nikayas have nothing to say about homosexuality or oral sex, and traditional Asian societies probably just took their pre-existing cultural taboos and incorporated them into their understanding of the Third Precept in the same way that modernists are now doing.

To be fully justified in calling these new ethics “Buddhist,” however, one needs to check them for consistency against one’s core Buddhist commitments. For example, one can reason that designating homosexuality as “misconduct” is non-compassionate and causes suffering; that homosexual acts are, in and of themselves, no more harmful than heterosexual acts; and that there is social benefit to be gained from giving one’s imprimatur to loving relationships of all kinds.

While this argument seems about right, it raises questions about other kinds of sexual behaviors that may also require reconsideration. What does one think about pornography, plural marriage, or solitary fetishes? What about sex in exchange for money between consenting adults? The modernist Buddhist criteria for discerning which sexual behaviors promote and which degrade human well-being require further elaboration. In the process of that elaboration we may discover instances in which modernist Buddhist ethics are in accord with liberal humanist ethics, but also instances in which they diverge.

Let’s take another example: the First Precept against killing. At first glance, it seems less problematic than the precept against sexual misconduct. We all know what killing is, and we’re against it. Against it, that is, until we discover that termites are eating away the foundations of our house or we come down with streptococcal pneumonia. Then we’re all for calling in the exterminator or taking antibiotics. I’m not aware of any Buddhist authorities who forbid the use of antibiotics even though antibiotics necessarily involve killing living beings—an issue which the Buddha, living long before Pasteur, could not have anticipated. If we believe the precept permits using antibiotics, then we can no longer interpret the precept as categorical. It no longer forbids all intentional killing, but only most types of intentional killing under most circumstances.

The problem is: which types does it permit, and under which circumstances? Does the precept just mean something like “try living with as little killing as possible and see how it goes?” Should we draw distinctions between killing creatures with lesser degrees of sentience and creatures with greater degrees of sentience? This is a question that could keep Buddhist ethicists quibbling for centuries.

Let’s set the question of sentience aside, however, and limit ourselves to addressing the killing of other human beings. For many years I lived in the small town of Cheshire, Connecticut. In 2007, two ex-convicts invaded a family home in Cheshire and proceeded to rape, strangle and set a mother’s body on fire. They also raped her eleven-year-old daughter, tied her and her seventeen-year old sister to their beds, doused their bodies with gasoline, and set their rooms ablaze. As you can see, I have picked the most horrible case in point that I can imagine.

Here is my hypothetical question: If that was your family and you stumbled upon the crime in progress, what would you do? Do you have even the slightest doubt that you’d use any force necessary to protect your family? Do you believe that Buddhist ethics ought to require you to allow the crime to proceed if you couldn’t stop it through less-than-lethal means?

I suspect that most of us agree that there are extreme circumstances under which resorting to violence might be permitted. Where we might disagree is on the specific circumstances under which it may be permissible. Categorically saying “killing is never permitted” doesn’t accord with what most of us truly believe. We see the ideal of never killing as aspirational, but we wouldn’t feel necessarily bound by it under certain circumstances.

Let’s take this one step further. Traditional interpretations of the First Precept also forbid abortion, assisted suicide, and the euthanasia of suffering pets. According to the Vinaya, for example, a monk who intentionally destroys an embryo is to be permanently expelled from the sangha. This traditional view is at odds with liberal humanist ethics, and this creates a certain degree of dissonance for Buddhist modernists. How do modernists, who may support euthanasia or abortion under certain circumstances, resolve this dissonance? One way is by invoking the principle of upaya or “skillful means” and asserting that when one’s goal is the compassionate ending of suffering, killing may be permitted.

There are traditional Buddhist stories that support this interpretation. The Upaya Kausalya Sutra contains the fable of a bodhisattva sea captain whose ship is carrying five hundred merchants who are on the path to becoming bodhisattvas. There’s a robber aboard who intends to rob and kill the merchants. The captain rules out warning the merchants because they might be tempted to throw the robber overboard, and the resulting bad karma would delay their becoming bodhisattvas. This would be very bad because, more than anything else, the world needs bodhisattvas. Instead, the captain kills the robber himself, accepting a consequent rebirth in hell for “a hundred thousand eons,” but helping all beings in the process. Along the same lines, there’s an historical account of Pelgyi Dorje, the ninth-century Buddhist monk who assassinated Langdarma, the reviled Tibetan king who put Tibetan Buddhadharma in jeopardy.

These tales suggest that, under certain circumstances, the motivation of compassion can trump the prohibition against killing. But we can also readily see what a slippery slope this is. As philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe notes, “a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things.” Robespierre, Lenin, and Pol Pot were all idealists who did unconscionable things in order to allegedly remake the world for the better.  As the saying goes, “If you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs.” Once we allow for the possibility of “compassionate” killing as “skillful means,” we’re stalked by the ghosts of the reign of terror, the gulag, and the holocaust. The doctrine of skillful means hopes to elide this difficulty by emphasizing compassion, but the notion of compassion isn’t an entirely unproblematic one.

For example, one might rightly ask whether compassion can ever be excessive. Are there any limits, for example, on the degree of generosity that bodhisattvas (and by bodhisattvas I mean practitioners who’ve taken their Bodhisattva vows–not celestial bodhisattvas) ought to express? The Jatakas are folk tales that are intended to teach us moral lessons, much like Aesop’s Fables. There’s one particular tale–the tale of Vessantara, one of the Buddha’s earlier incarnations–that makes me cringe. Out of his boundless compassion for a greedy beggar, Vessantara gives his children away to be the beggar’s slaves. The moral seems to be that a bodhisattva is attached to nothing, willingly giving everything—even his children—away.

Consider the implications of unlimited compassion in your own life. Imagine that you have $20 to spare and learn of a charity helping starving children. You gladly donate the $20 and feel the positive aftereffects of generosity. You then realize that you could donate even more money. You don’t really need to read a newspaper every day or watch television. You promptly cancel your subscription and sell your TV, donating the proceeds to charity. Next, you realize you don’t really need to live in a modest house. You sell your home, donate those proceeds, and rent a single room. And so it goes. Do you really need more than a single change of clothes? Do you really need two kidneys? At what point have you given enough? There are always more children to save.

The West makes a distinction between ethical acts that are required and those that are merely “supererogatory,” that is, are admirable but not required. There seems to be no such distinction in Buddhism, and we may ask if Buddhism holds us to an impossible standard. Buddhists sometimes address this question of an “impossible standard” by suggesting that we owe compassion to ourselves as well—that we ought to include ourselves on the list of sentient beings to whom we owe compassion. But, this formulation doesn’t really resolve the question of where to properly draw the line. Vessantara, after all, showed no such compassion, either to himself or his children. Neither did Prince Sattva, in another Jataka tale, who threw himself from a cliff so that hungry tiger cubs could feed on his body.

As Buddhists, we probably agree it would be better if everyone valued compassion highly and if everyone tried extending his or her compassion to an ever-wider range of recipients under an ever-broader set of circumstances. We probably also agree that learning generosity means sensing our current limits and pushing against them, exploring the edges of what’s possible. Our most common problem isn’t extreme altruism at all, but excessive complacency and self-satisfaction. We all need to open our hearts wider than they are. Still, the question remains: ought there to be limits to our generosity, and if so, what are the guidelines for those limits?

A second problem related to compassion is whether we fully endorse the idea of compassion without attachment or preference. While there’s real value in a universal benevolence directed towards everyone without exception, if we see two children drowning, one our own and one a stranger’s–and if we can only save one–is it reasonable to think that we show no preference towards saving our own? There’s something deeply unsettling about the idea of complete and radical equanimity. While we may agree that we owe a duty of care to all sentient beings—and perhaps even to all plants and inanimate objects—it seems inhuman to think we ought to strip ourselves of all attachments to family and friends and feel exactly the same way towards everyone. In classical Chinese philosophy, this is the criticism that the third century Confucian scholar Xunzi leveled against the Mohists who argued on behalf of jian’ai or “impartial concern.” It seems as if the Buddhist ideal of complete equanimity and detachment reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature, both in terms of how it is and how it ought to be. In following Buddhism, most of us want to become the best human beings we can possibly be. We don’t want to lose our humanity in the process.

We could have picked any of the precepts and discovered exactly the same sorts of questions. How literally are we to interpret them? Does Buddhism make extreme demands that push us towards a semi-divine apotheosis, or is it a middle way for deepening and enriching our humanity? To what extent are modernist Western values compatible with traditional Buddhist teachings? As we strip away at what seems inessential to Buddhist practice, what do we risk losing in the process? May we find ourselves rejecting ideas that –precisely because they are discordant with modernity—have the capacity to serve as invaluable correctives to the one-sidedness of our present lives?

What’s clear is that the meaning of the precepts isn’t simply a “given.” Every practitioner must read them anew and breathe new life into them. The ethical life isn’t a matter of following rules, but of committing to a particular line of inquiry–of asking which choices exemplify the skillful, the right, and the good in each moment.

Despite their interpretive difficulties, the precepts are the living heart of Buddhism. They help us to enact and refine our understanding of our interrelationship with all beings, and serve as antidotes to the fragmented individualism, self-centeredness, and acquisitiveness that are the scourges of contemporary life. They point towards the engaged, compassionate regard for others that is the hallmark of the Enlightened Way.




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10 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Buddhist Ethical Precepts

  1. Thank you for this wonderful article! I only wish you had addressed the 5th precept. May you be well and happy and receive much merit for this!

    • Thank you, Amos! You’re right, the 5th Precept would also be worth-while investigating. Is it all right to have an occasional small glass of wine if one doesn’t drink enough to cause heedlessness and if there are proven health benefits to it? What about the use of psychedelics in the right protected setting and with the right intention? While we’re against drunkeness and heedlessness,can mind-altering substances be used safely and wisely and to the benefit of self and others? Questions worth exploring!

  2. Lots of very good food for thought here, Seth.

    I’d suggest (surprise, surprise) a Kantian view of the precepts, wherein they are, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes, absolute and clear in nature. However, Buddhism – like Kantianism properly understood – allows and understands that no person is born morally perfect. So we start with baby steps: “no, hon, you can’t kill Billy down the street because he stole your bike” and work toward, “let’s not hunt or eat meat.” It does get tricky around the level of bacteria – and if I remember correctly the Buddha stopped his monks from wandering during the rains retreats because they would step on “tiny creatures” – but that’s an aside. Yet it shows some pragmatism – don’t go around popping antibiotics every time you get a sniffle, but we don’t need to follow the more extreme measures taken by, say, Jains in the avoidance of harming life.

    If we understand that we’re creating a little ‘bad karma’ when we take the antibiotics, we can vow to do good with the extra life/energy we get as a result and hopefully balance the karmic books, so to say. This is a feature of the ship captain story and some of its commentaries. The precept is categorical; how we actually live and breath is always another matter and I don’t see anything problematic with this.

    On sexual mores, what makes the Western Buddhist nubbie “Buddhist” in his/her ethics is not whether they live up to them on any given day, but whether the precepts form an “orientation” for the individual. Yes, all cultures have interpreted them according to conditions around them and Westerners are no different (which is why I find/found the “traditional=Asian=real” vs “Western=Liberal=fake” discussions so flawed). The great skillful people of the world should be seen as exemplars of what is possible – those who give greatly, even an organ – but not as measuring bars from which to judge ourselves or others (“I could never do that, am I a bad Buddhist?”). If we’ve made some progress along the path, we’ll no doubt see that some people are much less generous than us and others more so and we might see that we could in fact do a little better. Or maybe not, not right now at least. When I see these slippery slope worries I usually want to say “just stop” – Just because you’re not perfect now and that’s kind of okay doesn’t mean you can be horrible and say that’s okay too. Our ignorance and harm caused by it now will have consequences; becoming Stalin would be worse.

    And I haven’t seen anything written on it, but doesn’t it make sense that in early Buddhism (and Theravada thereafter) the Perfections are all supererogatory?

    • Thanks, Justin for your very thoughtful response. I appreciate the appeal of interpreting the precepts categorically, but of tempering that interpretation with a genuine sympathetic appreciation for the imperfection of human nature. In that sense, the precepts would be considered aspirational– as pointers towards the directions one hopes to go–but without serving as cudgels for self-castigation when one falls short. This is a humane and helpful interpretation. I have a longish essay that will appear in this winter’s issue of Tricycle that looks at the precepts in just that way–as compass points towards a horizon of some intended future state of being, whether interpreted in traditional Enlightenment terms, or in terms somewhat closer to Aristotelian eudaemonia. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I remain interested in the question of what is superrerogatory, and would love to see this questions addressed in depth. And I still have concerns about the impartiality of compassion, and whether Buddhist aspirations in this regard are well-placed.

    • Well said, Justin!

      I don’t know enough about either historical Buddhism or Kantianism to offer anything especially relevant to this conversation, beyond my own practice. I know I aspire to compassion, authenticity, and presence in all facets of life, as my contribution to a better world. But I also believe in acceptance rather than judgment, of myself as well as others, and as I often tell myself when I’m struggling, “If Zen is about acceptance, then even not-Zen is also Zen and this struggling is pointless suffering.”

      We may make categorical rules and laws (though as has been noted, even that’s harder than it sounds), but meaning cannot be categorical: “The sound of the rain needs no translation.” This speaks of the necessity of personal interpretation, though clearly I’m assuming that interpretation will happen through the filter of loving compassion as opposed to, say, violence and egoism. Being prescriptive about “moral” issues hasn’t worked for any world religion yet, because I think it attempts to simplify something that’s enormously complex, so I prefer to think the best way to contribute to an end to suffering is one person, one act, one moment at a time.

      Which is all my babbling way of saying “Great piece, Seth, and great comment, Justin!”

  3. During 1994-95 I would sometimes visit the Zen Center of Los Angeles on a Thursday evening. Taizan Maezumi Roshi gave two dharma talks based on these respective themes: “Am I a Buddhist?” and “I and not-I are one.”

    During open question and answer period Roshi was asked about the precept “not killing” by a man who wanted to know if putting out a cigarette in the grass violates the precept? Two things I recall Roshi saying to this man are: 1. You can’t keep the precepts! You’ll go crazy! We must kill to eat! and 2. You can’t do whatever you want! Go ahead, try it, you’ll see!

    On the question of Am I a Buddhist the dharma talk revolved mostly around the theme of not knowing. I sincerely felt that this apparently Buddhist teacher (roshi) did not know whether or not he could be identified as a Buddhist despite having taken the precepts and continuing the practices for decades.

    During the early 1990s I had taken a course called Fuzzy Logic and Neural Networks for a masters level engineering program. Thus when Roshi gave the talk “I and not-I are one” I recognized the principle of the non-excluded middle that is the basis for what is now called “fuzzy logic” or “fuzzy set theory.”

    If the Buddha applied the term nama-rupa in the context of the psychosomatic personality, and if the neural processing of personal experience is inherently a fuzzy set at its core but generates duality or crisp set theory at the margins, then I have an adequate cognitive model to understand why these two talks resonate so much with my self-other experience.

    • Thanks so much for your reminiscences of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, who was the founder of my particular American Zen lineage. I love his answers! Also, please be careful of terms like “neural processing of personal experience,” which conceal a multitude of unresolvable problems. Neural processing is neural processing, personal experience is personal experience, and while the two would seem to have something to do with each other, the language that would enable us to conjoin the first and third person account of the world still eludes us.

      • Glad you enjoy those answers as much as I do. I agree we do not have the language to resolve first person and third person accounts of the world but only if I first generate or dream up such accounts of the world via an apparently neural process.

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