The Five Precepts and Ten Unwholesome Actions

The moral precepts (sila) overlap to some extent with the Ten Commandments (don't lie, steal, or kill), and embody the Golden Rule (do unto others what you would have others do unto you). Translating sila as morality might create confusion; ethics might be a better choice for this term. The basis for practice and the path to awakening are these ethical precepts. They are done not out of some sense of moral purity but out of necessity.

The Five Precepts are:

  1. Do not destroy life.

  2. Do not steal.

  3. Do not commit sexual misconduct.

  4. Do not lie.

  5. Do not become intoxicated.

It's hard to kill someone in the morning and meditate with concentration and mindfulness in the afternoon. The fallout from unwholesome actions interferes with the mind's ability to train itself. In addition to the five silas, the Buddha also cautioned against another five unwholesome actions, making for a list of ten.

This action list of ten things to avoid can be grouped into things not to do with your body (don't kill, steal, harm with sexuality), speech (don't lie, don't be harsh with words, don't gossip, and don't engage in frivolous speech), and mind (don't get lost in desire, don't get lost in hatred, don't get lost in wrong resolve).

According to Donald S. Lopez Jr., in The Story of Buddhism, when a vow is taken, from the Buddhist perspective, it takes on a subtle physical form in the body itself and remains so until death or until the vow is broken. As long as the vow is in the body, the person accumulates merit for it.

In many traditions, taking vows means to commit yourself to the practice of the five silas (not to kill, steal, lie, sexual misconduct, and intoxication). The ten unwholesome actions will be presented within the context of the five precepts.

American Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein likens the ethical precepts to a warning sign on the beach: “Danger, Strong Undertow.” The Buddha is the lifeguard who has put up this warning sign. The precepts are a template for living an awakened life.

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