Most religions have moral and ethical rules and commandments. In Buddhism there are Precepts, however the Buddhist Precepts are not a list of rules to follow. In some religions moral laws are believed to have come from God, and breaking those laws is a sin or transgression against God. Buddhism does not entertain the concept of a creator God; therefore, the Precepts are not considered as commandments. Conversely, this does not imply that following the precepts are considered optional, either.
Taking refuge in the Three Jewels (the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) is the initial step in formally becoming a Buddhist and following the precepts forms the foundation of all Buddhist paths. Buddhists practitioners throughout the world observe various levels of precepts, depending upon each individual’s level of commitment to the path they have chosen. Consequently, the initial refuge in the Three Jewels signifies the starting point on the path of the eradication of suffering and the awakening of not just one’s own self but all sentient beings. Taking precepts can be compared to military personnel adhering to the rules of military law or citizens of a particular country abiding by the common law of their society. The difference between the first two approaches and the Buddhist approach is that the military rules or the common laws are external restrictions whereas the Buddhist precepts spring forth from a practice of self–discipline which eventually can become self regulated.
Precepts are sometimes divided into lay precepts and monastic precepts, or Mahāyāna (the Great Vehicle) precepts and Theravāda [Pāli: थेरवाद], [Sanskrit: स्थविरवाद Sthaviravāda]; (the Way of the Elders) precepts. The lay precepts of Theravāda practice usually include: the five precepts, the eight precepts and the ten precepts. The lay precepts in Mahāyāna practice include: the five precepts, the ten precepts, the sixteen precepts and the forty–eight bodhisattva precepts. This examination will only concern itself with the precepts taken by lay practitioners of Buddhism. Within this specific context, this exploration also endeavors to explain the various cannon’s of thought, including the Theravāda approach, and the Mahāyāna approach as well as the derivate Mahāyāna practices of Zen and Vajrayāna as well.
The First Five Precepts involve:
· Not to take life
· Not to steal
· Not to indulge in sexual misconduct
· Not to lie or be dishonest
· Not to consume intoxicants with the intent to produce heedlessness
According to Chapter thirty–three of the Samyuktāgama Sutra: “The perfection of the Upāsaka precepts is to stay away from taking life, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and taking intoxicants to produce heedlessness.” It is generally accepted that the Five Precepts are the essential ground of practice for all lay practitioners of Buddhism. There are distinctly different advanced precepts and even further specific precepts for a monastic practitioner; however, it is important to note that all of the precepts, in every form of Buddhist practice, all begin with the Five Precepts. This is why the first five precepts are also known as the “Foundation Precepts.”