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The five lay precepts

The five lay precepts

Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).

  • Not to kill
  • Not to steal
  • Not to engage in sexual misconduct

The Essence of a Human Life: The five lay precepts (download)

We’ll continue on in Tsongkhapa’s text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for the Lay Practitioner. The verse we were on said, “With such thoughts….” In other words, reflecting on our own mortality and the purpose of our lives.

With such thoughts make effort and refuge
Live as best you can according to the five lifelong precepts
praised by the Buddha as the basis of lay life.
Take sometimes the eight one-day precepts
and guard them dearly.

We already talked about refuge. That’s mentioned in the first line. And then the advice after that was “as best as you can, live according to the five lifelong precepts.” Those are the five lay precepts that are taken by lay practitioners. In all of the Buddhist traditions they have these. The five precepts for lay practitioners summarize the meaning of many of the precepts that the fully ordained bhikkhus and bhikkhunis have. When you’re a lay person you get one general precept, when you’re training in monastic life then it really gets explained in a lot of depth with many, many different things that are prohibited.


The first one is to abandon killing. For lay practitioners, and for monastics, this one is broken from the root if somebody intentionally kills a human being. Intentionally killing an animal, accidentally killing a human being, accidentally stepping on an ant, these do not break the precept from the root. However, any other kind of deliberate killing is an infraction against the precept and needs to be purified. But it isn’t transgressed from the root.

Although there’s no separate precept about beating people up and harming people physically, that is incorporated into the killing precept, the idea being that in order to kill somebody you usually have to harm them physically for quite a long time. So you may only have the intention of harming somebody physically for a short time, without the intention to kill them, but it still falls under that precept in the sense that you can’t say, “Well, the Buddha didn’t prescribe beating people up, he only said don’t kill them, so I can beat people up.” No, that doesn’t work.

The precept against killing is important because everybody’s most cherished possession, so to speak, is our life. So to really respect life in all of its forms.


The second precept is to avoid taking what’s not given. It’s also often translated as “stealing.” But we usually think, “Well, I don’t steal. Only burglars and robbers do that.” That’s what all these CEOs of banks think. “I don’t steal. I don’t put on a mask and break into somebody’s house in the middle of the night.” People who overcharge in their business dealings, who cheat people in business, they don’t think “I steal.” Because “steal” is a word associated with being a burglar like that.

In some ways translating it as “taking what has not been freely given” may enable some people to reflect on their actions a little bit more and see, “Oh, maybe I haven’t broken into anybody’s house and taken their TV, but I have taken their wealth that has not been freely given to me, and I have deprived them of wealth that is theirs, that is owed to them, through my connivery in business.”

The one about stealing is actually quite expansive. It also includes using property from your workplace for your own personal life when that hasn’t been authorized by your employer. In a monastery, wow, there are actually a lot of ways to steal. For example, the food in the kitchen, if it hasn’t been put out for public consumption, and the community has not agreed that in certain circumstances people can go in the kitchen and get something, but you’re going in the kitchen outside of those circumstances because you want to eat something, that’s stealing from the sangha, which is actually quite severe because you’re stealing from the sangha of the 10 directions, stealing from all of the individuals in the community.

Somebody, for example, who is the cook or the food manager has to be very careful, because if food comes in and they take food that was given for the community and they say, “Well, there’s not enough for the whole community, so I’ll just eat it….” And that food doesn’t get put out and served to the community, but taken by that individual, that also is stealing.

We really have to look at the community rules and policies and follow those things quite exactly.

In a similar way, things that are offered to the Buddha—I mean, food and things like that. If you’re the caretaker of the altar, you can take down and distribute to people. But if somebody, let’s say, offers money to the Buddha, or jewelry to the Buddha, or something like that, you can’t say, “Well, the Buddha doesn’t use that, so I’ll take it and use it.” Or even the community can’t say, “Well, we’ll take it and use it for our food.” Because no, it was offered to the Buddha Jewel. It wasn’t offered to the sangha, so it can be used to buy things to worship or to make offerings to the Buddha with, but we can’t take it and sell it and then use it just so we can eat, or we can’t buy beds for ourselves, or something like that. So if money or so on is offered to the Buddha, then we should use that to build altars, to get statues, to care for the statues, and so on. Similarly, material offered to the Dharma cannot be used for the Buddha, cannot be used for the sangha. If it’s money, then we use it to buy cloth to keep the texts clean, or to protect the texts, or to buy more texts, or something like that.

We have to be quite careful with money that’s offered to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and not just say, “Well, I’ll take it.” That’s why I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a donation box right in front of the altar, because many people could be going there and thinking, “I’m offering money to the Three Jewels.” And then if the community takes it and buys food with it, that’s not right. If you have a donation box in another place—like we have it in the back of the room—then it’s kind of clear it’s not for the Three Jewels, it’s for the community. So to be quite clear about these kinds of things.

Similarly, if a donor gives something—let’s say somebody buys socks for all the community, and there are enough pairs of socks to go around, then everybody should get a pair. If you have enough and you don’t want it, you give it back, it gets put in the community storehouse. But the person receiving it shouldn’t say, “Well, there are enough pairs for everybody, but so and so needs some socks, but so and so doesn’t, so I’ll keep the other person’s socks and only give them to the person I like, or the person who I think needs it.” When something’s given to be distributed to everybody who’s there, it needs to be distributed to everybody who’s there.

Sexual misconduct

The third one is not having unwise or unkind sexual behavior. This is usually translated as “sexual misconduct,” but that can be rather unclear. This precept, more than the others, I think is influenced by culture at the time. Because what is okay in one culture at one historical time is not okay in another culture at another historical time. For example, in ancient India it was fine for a man to have many wives. Nowadays it isn’t. In Tibet it was fine for a woman to have many husbands. Nowadays it isn’t. So we have to go with the times and what is societally acceptable.

I remember when I heard one Tibetan lama teaching this, and he said, “Well it’s not sexual misconduct if somebody else pays for the prostitute but you go with her.” I almost went through the ceiling when I heard that. Because to me prostitution, by and large, unless somebody really makes a conscious choice that is not due to economic pressure or being trafficked, or runaways who are then, a pimp comes and gets them addicted to drugs, and then they have to prostitute to maintain their loyalty to the pimp and get the drugs they want, if somebody really seriously chooses this as their career, then that’s one thing. But most cases of prostitution, it’s under economic necessity, and it’s not the woman, or in the case of young boys being prostituted, it’s not a choice. Nobody grows up, they didn’t grow up to say, “I think I want to be a prostitute.” It’s not their chosen way of staying alive.

In general, breaking this one from the root is usually adultery. In other words, you’re in a relationship and you go with somebody who isn’t. Doesn’t matter if you’re married or not. If you’re in a relationship and you go outside of it. Or, even you’re single, you go with somebody who’s in a relationship. This happens so often, I can’t tell you, when I travel, how many times people (especially children) come and tell me—it’s usually the father, sometimes the mother—”I knew my dad was having an affair when I grew up.” The parents usually think, “Oh, the kids don’t know.” Let me tell you, the kids know. And this affects the children in the home, their feeling of security. It sets an example for them of what proper behavior is. Because kids learn by copying their parents. So if you’re having multiple affairs, you’re teaching your sons and daughters to have multiple affairs too. Is that something you really want to model for your kids?

I think in ancient times they didn’t talk very much about sexually transmitted diseases. Now they’re really quite a problem, and people can get severely ill. I think, for me, I would include unprotected sex, where there’s danger of sexually transmitted diseases, in this precept of unwise or unkind sex.

It’s interesting because now you have all these young people who are hooking up, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, you just go off and sleep with somebody, no emotional attachment, no commitment, we just have fun, basta finito, and go on to the next person.” I question that a little bit. Maybe in some situations it’s consensual and there’s no attachment. But my observation has been that very often attachment comes about. Because this is human beings’ biggest attachment is to sexual partners. Using somebody for sexual pleasure, not taking into account that the other person may be becoming attached to you and growing fond of you, but from your side you’re just using them as a body to have pleasure with, to me I would put that into the category of unkind sexual behavior, because it’s really using a person as an object, not taking into account their feelings. And people can get very, very hurt this way, even though they may say at the beginning, “Oh, there’s no attachment involved.” Like in my generation, and now, too: “Oh we’ll have an open marriage. And you go off with this one, I’ll go off with this one, no problem, we accept that.” My friends who have done that tell me that it’s just a pit of jealousy. Just drama and upset and everything else. We can’t just take somebody’s word about what they say in this area, because, “oh yeah, fine, no problem,” but then when it happens, they completely explode. I think we have to think more seriously about this kind of thing.

This is the precept. Whenever it’s taught in India, oh my goodness…. Because it’s usually taught to the young people, the travelers. Oh, they just explode. And I don’t even try and talk about Vasubandhu, what he says about this. Also because I think it doesn’t really pertain to social standards now, at least what’s acceptable in the West, and the way our society is structured, and so on.

Clearly, having sex with underage kids is prohibited, according to the precepts. I’ve had a few of the prisoners that I’ve written to, some of them quite definitely, they’ve cultivated a child, and they’ve had sexual relationships of some sort with that child, and it was very, very harmful to the child. I know one young man who was 18 and he had sex with a girl who was 11. He said, “But I thought she was at least 14.” But anyway, she probably was consensual, but her grandma completely flipped out and got him arrested, and he was convicted as an adult. The interesting thing—or not so interesting, sad thing—is that a year later he met another man who had just recently been convicted for sleeping with the same girl, who was now 12, and the grandmother reported the second guy. So this kind of thing, how much, is it consensual or not? She’s 11 or 12. Hard to say it’s consensual. But on the other hand, she seemed to know what she was doing, and is it fair for a boy. Actually, the boy wasn’t even 18 when this happened, I think he was 17. He was a juvenile tried as an adult for raping, or for pedophilia, with this eleven-year-old girl. That seems like a bit too much of a sentence.

The whole point of this thing is, we have to think and not just get so carried away with sexual feelings or feelings of “love” (i.e. attachment) that we stop thinking about the effects of our actions on the other person, on ourselves, on the families involved, on any other people involved. We may usually think, “Well, it’s just between me and the other person.” Not exactly. Because each of us has lives in which we’re embedded with the lives of other people. So we have to take care of that.

We’ll pause here. We’ll do the other ones tomorrow.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.